Episode 78 - Making Tough Choices

In this week's episode of Solutions for Higher Education, our hosts discuss the difficult decision colleges face to close down with Stephanie Niles, VP for Enrollment and Communications at Ohio Wesleyan University and immediate past president for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined today, as always, by President Wyatt. Scott, how are you? 

Scott Wyatt: Terrific, Steve. Thank you very much.

Meredith: It's good to see you today and it is a crisp January day in 2020 as we are recording this and this is part of an ongoing series of podcasts about the wide-spread message that is being sent right now out through the media, certainly within higher ed, but outside of higher ed as well that there is a real, looming crisis approaching higher education. And much of this has to do with concerns about enrollment. It's deeper than that, it's the way people think about higher education, how much they feel it is useful in terms of return on investment, so there are other reasons, but it will manifest itself, at least according to these reports, largely through declining enrolment and perhaps even steeply declining enrollment. Anyway, we have a nationally recognized guest today to talk to us about college closures and some of the impacts that these types of difficulties, challenges that we're going to be facing will bring to us in the coming years. So, why don't you introduce her?

Wyatt: So, we're delighted to be joined today by Stephanie Niles who is the Vice President for Enrollment and Communications at Ohio Wesleyan University and also, Stephanie, you're the immediate past president for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Welcome.

Stephanie Niles: Yeah, thank you so much. I'm glad to join you this evening.

Wyatt: Yeah, we're honored that you would spend some time talking with us.

Meredith: Where is Ohio Wesleyan?

Niles: Ohio Wesleyan is in Delaware, Ohio which sits about 25 miles north of Columbus.

Meredith: There you go. Beautiful part of the world.

Niles: It is, it is. And a bit balmy here for January, actually. Not maybe as crisp as it is in Utah at the moment, though it should be.

Meredith: There you go.

Wyatt: Stephanie, I've spent some time in Ashland, Ohio at Ashland University.

Niles: Oh, yes, not far away.

Wyatt: Yeah, it isn't very far away and it is a beautiful place. Every time I'm back in Ohio, one of the things that I love are the lightning bugs.

Meredith: Oh, yeah.

Niles: Yes.

Wyatt: Fireflies.

Niles: That's right, this part of the country is known for that. I grew up in Pennsylvania and I worked almost 14 years in Indiana and so, I was happy about a year and a half ago to take this job in Ohio kind of meeting in the middle, settling in the middle of my two former home states.

Wyatt: We don't have anything like that out here.

Meredith: No.

Wyatt: And to sit out on the lawn at sunset and just watch all of these bugs jumping around, that is just really kind of thrilling for a Rocky Mountain western sort of guy.

Niles: Uh-huh.

Wyatt: Well, thanks for joining us. Why don't you tell us just a little bit about yourself? Give us your biography in a minute.

Niles: Sure. So, I'm in my 23rd year in enrollment. Began my career at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, worked my way up—after earning a master's degree at Indiana University and a bachelor's degree at University of Virginia—worked my way up to the Vice President for Admissions and Financial Aid, returned to my home town in Pennsylvania where I worked for a small, Christian private institution for a few years before trying my hand then at a women's college in Virginia and spent several years there and then returned to Pennsylvania, went to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and then had an opportunity to move to Ohio, to Ohio Wesleyan about a year and a half ago. Along the way, I completed a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania in Higher Education Management and I've had some terrific opportunities to serve in leadership roles throughout the affiliates of our National Association for College Admission Counseling in the state or region where I was living. I was the president in Indiana before I moved away from there and then I am in my 3rd and final year as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, currently serving as the immediate past-president of the association.

Wyatt: Well, I think it's fair to say that you've been around a bit and that you are well-read and certainly the way we became acquainted with you was from your writing in The Chronicle. Articles about enrollments and so, we think…

Niles: Yeah, I was…

Wyatt: You may be one of the people that we're talking to that is as familiar with this as anybody.

Niles: Well, I know the article that I wrote, that short piece, was preceded by a longer piece that was written by a current Vice President for Enrollment at Bucknell University and then there were five of us who essentially wrote short pieces in response to the issues and the challenges that Bill Conley presented that his institution is facing and then those of us representing other institutions, other parts of the country, other perspectives were able to reflect on some of those challenges that the demographics, the challenges related to college cost, the way in which, as you mentioned earlier, the way in which students and their families are valuing—or devaluing in many cases—higher education and the pursuit of a degree and all of the associated issues that our industry is facing.

Wyatt: Your short little article in the recent Chronicle starts out with this sentence, 'We have entered into a time of unprecedented uncertainty.' Why don't you elaborate on that for us?

Niles: Sure, yeah I remember a few years ago when I was still at Hollins University in Virginia, my president was sitting on the stage at a workshop that I was attending and she talked about how…that this is the most challenging that her job has been, that she has seen in the 40+ years that she's spent in higher education. And so, that was a little bit of an 'a-ha' moment for me to hear your own president reflect on how challenging it is in such a long and storied career. And that was six-ish years ago, and frankly, I think it has only gotten more challenging with just the things that I referenced earlier, the escalation of college costs without the increase in family income to offset those experiences, the institutions now that we've started to see close and the way that those institutions that are particularly vulnerable given low endowments, given the changing demographics in the country, that there are some real challenges there. And even in my role with NACAC, we've recently seen that, in response to the U.S. Department of Justice's Antitrust Division's investigation into our code of ethics and professional practice, we now have three formerly mandatory items that have been removed from that code and they are no longer enforceable for our members, which really has the potential to change the way in which we operate as institutions and we recruit students and students come to us, find us, select our institutions, how we can prepare for those students. So, I think there is…we could talk about any one of those issues for an entire podcast or more, but I think that hopefully that gives some sense of the real unprecedented uncertainty that's being posed at this particular point in time.

Wyatt: We have a vice president that works with us that grew up in a state in New England that has had four colleges close in the last two years.

Niles: Mhmm. My husband grew up in Vermont, which is one of those states that has had several colleges close, Massachusetts of course has seen several close so, it's a challenge. And I know, and you have probably read the same things I have, where some of the institutions that are seeing their endowments are below 100 million dollars, they are very dependent on tuition revenue, that their student populations are under 1,000 students, that there isn't some niche program that they are really able to rely on to serve a need within the educational community of communities they serve, these are some of the institutions that are, I think, most at risk. And I think if we look at some of the examples of institutions that have closed, we've seen that they will certainly fall into these categories.

Wyatt: So, some schools have a bit more risk than others.

Niles: Mhmm.

Wyatt: But let's just assume for the sake of discussion that every institution should take advantage of the climate that's out there, or should be aware of what's going on and find the way to make their school stronger as a result.

Niles: I think that's very…

Wyatt: What are the main…

Niles: Go ahead.

Wyatt: What are the main messages?

Niles: Well, I think that what you said is really key. I think for an institution to not take stock, to not be willing to ask the hard questions, to not be willing to really take a look at itself…what it does well? Who it serves? Is there another population it should be serving? Are there opportunities being missed? Are these things the institution is doing, programs it's delivering, that are not as effective, are not resonating and capturing the population needed? I think each and every…almost each and every institution is in a position now to have to really take stock of themselves and ask those tough questions. I know my institution is currently in a position of doing that. We're doing both an academic and administrative review that, frankly, I think is exciting because it's presenting us with opportunities to really take a good, hard look at who we are, at asking and answering some of those questions that I just posed and making some changes. We can't think about just next year or just three years from now, but if we want to sustain the institution for 20, 30, 50 years and beyond, that's going to be somewhat dependent on the decisions that we make now.

Meredith: I'm very interested in this because we talked a little bit about this off the air, I'm using air quotes now for off the air, but anyway…so, in this self-evaluation, is it in fact a self-evaluation or have you hired an external partner to come in and help you with it?

Niles: We have hired an external partner to help us with the administrative review, but at this point in time, the academic review is being conducted internally, led by our Associate Provost for Institutional Effectiveness. So, we are actually in the process of finalizing a contract with a firm that does this kind of work for many institutions and will spend the spring essentially taking a hard look at our administrative practices, how we staff ourselves, the programs and services we deliver to our students. And then on the academic side, this process is ongoing looking at academic programs, looking at the costs associated with those programs from a staffing perspective, a program perspective, a facility perspective. This individual and I are also using a third-party vendor to do a research project looking at, 'What are the opportunities we might be missing?' Looking at the market that we are sitting in, that we are located in, are there opportunities perhaps at the graduate level, perhaps in online education that we can bring back to the faculty and talk more about if there's opportunities, if there's a market for programmatic initiative that we could fill, particularly looking at some of the things we do particularly well, can we move into those areas and look for new sources of revenue through a new population that we might serve?

Wyatt: Stephanie, does this lead to reallocation of resources? New programs? Closing programs? Shifting programs?

Niles: It certainly could lead to all of the above. And there's no predetermined, supposed outcome. At this point, it's really looking at all of those options on the table. We've talked about, for example, adding an e-sports program. We haven't taken that further in terms of any formal steps, but it's something that we've looked at. Obviously there would be some cost involved in that, but does the investment on the front end offset the potential revenue we might generate from students who would be attracted to us based on both the extracurricular as well as potentially the curricular opportunities that that could provide to students? There may be programs that we would look to close potentially if those programs are not necessarily serving the right population. And I don't have answers at hand, I have no predetermined thoughts on, 'It's going to this program or that program' but there's some really a deep dive into a wide range of data that will help tell us…help us make some of those decisions, give us some of those answers.

Wyatt: So, this is a process that you're going through and we're not…it's impossible to predict the results of it of course, but this is a process that every school should be going through, right?

Niles: I believe so. I think it's healthy, I think it's…it's not easy and we have spent a lot of time as a senior leadership team talking about our community, right? Particularly our faculty, or staff, how do we ensure that individuals remain motivated, remain committed to the work they're doing? There's no…while there may…not every person who is currently employed may be employed in the jobs they're currently working in in the future, but there again is not any notion that we're looking to eliminate a particular area or department or a program or service. So, I think there's a real opportunity for people to contribute their ideas and their thoughts. And we've had some really good input from our community as well who…we've asked people to share with us what are ideas that they have for both generating new revenue as well as cutting costs. And that's been a great way to engage the community, to really as our faculty and our staff to think about what we do and how we do it. To have people take some ownership in the process.

Meredith: I think that this kind of review is one of those things that can be a great political challenge at a university. Are you finding it to be the case that everyone's hair is on fire, for lack of a better term?

Niles: I think…that's what we're trying to prevent, right? We're really asking ourselves, and this was important in choosing the firm that we hope to work with, that they were attentive, too, to giving us tools and resources to keep the community engaged. To ensure that the communication tools would be robust and that they would help us to craft how we might message to the community so people were aware, we were transparent, they were feeling a part of the process, and again, could really see that this isn't just our institution. This is a healthy, important process to sustain the institution for future generations and it's not just about the here and now. This is really for us to ensure long-term prosperity.

Wyatt: Well, no one is secure unless the organization is secure.

Niles: Absolutely, absolutely.

Wyatt: And so, the best way to get security for employees is to make sure that the organization itself is secure.

Niles: Well, and certainly from my perspective, I'm looking at some of these questions from an enrollment perspective. So, I'm particularly invested in the questions that we are asking ourselves around programmatic opportunities, how do we consider growth in terms of graduate or online as I referenced earlier? Or how do we consider scaling back? Do we want to be smaller than we are if that means that we retain more students? We enroll them in a smaller selection of majors that we've invested in even more heavily than we do now? Are we building or adding to that set of majors at the same time that we're cutting back? So, it's a real interesting puzzle to put together and it's all being presented in this time of a demographic shift. And Ohio…I read an article a week or so ago that referenced Ohio as one of four states particularly challenged by demographics.

Meredith: Yes.

Niles: And we…there's a liberal arts college on every corner…

Wyatt: [Laughs] That's right.

Niles: Here in Ohio just about. And so…and we are just over half of our students come to us from Ohio. Just roughly 47% come from all other parts of the country and beyond, but we also know there's been some interesting changes there are well in terms of how far students are willing to travel. We look back at data from 1990, something like the percentage of students who would travel more than 100 miles from home to go to school was about…I think it was over 60% and now it's less than 50%. So, that has shifted as well. Students are much more likely to stay closer to home. And so, institutions that at one point in time were even more national are, in some cases, becoming more regional. And so, again, for those of us that fit in these demographically challenged areas, we really have to ask ourselves some of these difficult questions in, I think, in an even more time sensitive way.

Meredith: I have a son-in-law that just graduated from Campbell University Medical School. Campbell is down in North Carolina.

Niles: Yes.

Meredith: And I remember visiting with some folks while I was visiting the campus for his graduation and talking with them about the fact that the actual Campbell campus—and Campbell is a private, religious based school—the actual campus is quite small and quite old, but if you look at where the growth has taken place at Campbell, it's entirely in graduate professional programs in medical school, in nursing school, in law school. So, they have…and this person made no bones about the fact that the graduate and professional programs had made it so that the undergraduate programs could continue. That was the only way that they were going to be able to stay in business. And as you have suggested, these are some of the hard choices that particularly private colleges and universities are having to make where they don't have a legislature to help them. But do you find that it's this sense of an emergency or a pending emergency that is helping you get these things done? That it's helping people be motivated?

Niles: I think so. Again, I think partially it's looking around at the enrolment and recognizing that most institutions are challenged by some of the same challenges we face with enrollment growth and rising college costs and attracting students to these programs when they're…when we've got a neighbor down the street offering more money or meeting greater percentage of need. So, I think many of our employees, partially because we're trying to share that information with them and partially because they're reading and they're listening and they're talking to colleagues as well, they're seeing that this isn't just an Ohio Wesleyan issue or isn't just an issue for colleges in Ohio but, again, across much of the country, many institutions are facing these similar challenges. I think, too, when you talked about…you asked about the political piece and I was thinking about that from a faculty perspective, and one of the things I think that's really critical is retaining that sense of mission. Being true to the institution's mission, the reasons why it was founded in the first place, but recognizing that over time, over in many cases 100, 200 or more years, that institutions have been available, been founded in this country, that things have changed. And I had a kind of a program or a talk a couple of years ago and the person said, 'It's important to remember in times like these that there have always been times like these.' [All laugh]

Wyatt: That's right, that's right.

Niles: And I've thought about that a lot since then because I wonder if this is one of those circumstances where, going back to where we started, this is a time of unprecedented change. Is this different than any other time in history? And are we on the cuffs of something really new and different that, at least for the next 20 years, will have a significant impact? Technologies are so very different now than they were 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago and developing at such a faster rate than they were in those time periods and we're all impacted by the changes in technology in so many different ways. That in and of itself as a factor I think is unprecedented and has the ability to really impact higher education going forward.

Wyatt: Well, Stephanie, you…it's an interesting set of demographics that we're looking at and one of the things is, as you've pointed out in your article in The Chronicle is that we're seeing some declining enrollments in the country as a whole.

Niles: Mhmm.

Wyatt: It's a little different from place to place, Utah is still growing…

Niles: Right.

Wyatt: But we'll probably be…

Meredith: But our birth rate is not growing.

Wyatt: But our birth rate has gone down like everybody else.

Meredith: Yep.

Niles: Mhmm.

Wyatt: But we take a national perspective of declining enrollments and then we put on top of that a few of these schools that you're very familiar with—Southern New Hampshire, Grand Canyon, Western Governors, Arizona State—that has these massive enrollment goals. I think Western Governors said they have a goal of reaching one million students.

Meredith: Right.

Niles: Wow.

Wyatt: Some of these…I don't know that this is the right term, but these kinds of 'mega universities' or universities that have these huge goals…if they reach half of their goals, the growth that they'll experience is the equivalent of hundreds of universities' combined enrollments. So, not only do we see the enrollment challenges from a declining interest in going to college or a smaller number of students that are there to go to college nationally, but this huge competition from these big businesses. It almost feels to me like it's kind of like a whole bunch of small farms that are now going out because of the big, corporate farms.

Meredith: Right. Or bank consolidation.

Niles: Right.

Meredith: That happened in the 80s and 90s where now there are only a half a dozen banks in the world.

Niles: So, in other words, not only are there fewer students to go around, but with some of these institutions now looking to expand in such dramatic ways, will that also have an impact?

Wyatt: Yeah, that's right.

Niles: The potential of Western Governors capturing the million, recognizing the percentage of…the number of students even available to go to college, at least in the traditional age population—we know they will serve a much broader population—but you're right. That's certainly another fear or concern for institutions like mine that are largely bricks and mortar, largely serving a traditional aged population of students in a largely regional area. But how might that be affected by some of these other alternatives which, you know, I've seen Southern New Hampshire on TV and one the internet. I think every time I get on Facebook, some sort of advertisement comes up. So, they're certainly pouring their resources into creating a real sense of visibility.

Wyatt: Yes, and it's probable that some of the closures of universities and colleges in New England have come as a result of New Hampshire's growth.

Niles: Sure.

Wyatt: It has to be.

Niles: Sure, I would not be surprised. That, certainly, and the demographic that we are aware of in that part of the country. When you mentioned Utah's growth, I was sort of chuckling to myself. I remember a number of years ago when there was talk about, particularly Nevada and the growth there and institutions started to send representatives there and several institutions opened branch campuses there. And it's interesting, because they…many were not successful in capturing the market share that they expected, again, I think, for some of the reasons we've discussed. They were students who were more interested in remaining closer to home, as we see many students in the country are today. It's only something like 6%, I think, that will travel more than 500 miles away from home for school. And so, for me to spend a lot of time and energy in a place like Nevada or Utah is not likely to be particularly fruitful, even with the growth there. Unless I really look at capturing a small niche or, again, have a program or an opportunity that might draw those students to my campus.

Wyatt: Yeah, I would have been hesitant to travel a long distance when I was a college-aged kid.

Meredith: Yep.

Niles: Mhmm.

Wyatt: For a million reasons.

Niles: Sure, sure.

Wyatt: By the time…

Niles: I think about a colleague of mine…oh, sorry, go ahead.

Wyatt: By the time I got to graduate school, then I was willing to go anywhere. But as an undergrad, I wanted to stay close to home.

Niles: Well, and all sorts of reasons, right? I think about a colleague of mine who's worked in admissions and recruited students all over the country and now works in college counseling at a strong, private school in the Midwest is advising students to look broadly across the country, don't limit their options, and this individual's daughter is now looking to go to…is college bound and I think is not going to end up playing sports, but for a long time it looked like she would and they really limited her search to about a three hour radius so they could travel to see her play. Families…today I think we all know about helicopter parents. [All laugh]

Meredith: Yeah.

Niles: But there is, I think, a sense of family unity that has come from in some ways the enhanced communication that our devices have allowed us to achieve, how much more connected students are to their parents, the role that parents are playing in their lives, for good or for ill. Buti do think that family unit or those connections to family is another piece that we're dealing with as well.

Wyatt: Well, Steve and I are both from strong families and strong extended families and we fully understand the value of family…

Niles: Absolutely.

Wyatt: And how helpful family can be.

Niles: Absolutely, absolutely.

Meredith: Stephanie, I grew up with a father who loved books, floor to ceiling bookshelves in his den and we just never threw away books and they were sacred sort of.

Niles: Yeah.

Meredith: And I have the sense that there's that same feeling about colleges and universities. That there's a sacredness…that's not the right word, but you know what I mean? There's something about a college and a university, an apart-ness that hurts us all a little bit when we see one fail or close. And part of your article is 'more colleges are going to close.' And you've already outlined some of the warning signs that might be for a small enrolled college or a private school with a very small endowment or some of the other things…I guess my question is, we've always had colleges close. From your national perspective, when do we begin to worry? Is 10 a year an acceptable amount and 25 is a bubble bursting? I mean, I know I'm asking you to crystal ball this just a little bit, but where do we start to really be gravely concerned about college closures?

Niles: Yeah, that is a good question, and I don't know that I have a good answer. I think it's...obviously we watch the demographics, we want to be sure that we can continue to serve the educational needs of college-bound students. We know that college-bound students, however, are not all ages 18 to 24, that that average age of a student enrolled in college have shifted and they are older. And so, as that continues, if that continues, it may be that the traditional bricks and mortar campuses are not as relevant to meet the needs of all students. We've also all heard about how the jobs that exist today are not necessarily the ones that students who are enrolled in college today will be working in 10 years from now and that…I read an article the other day, I think it said about 60% of the jobs 10 years from now don't exist yet, or 15 years from now don't exist yet. So…

Meredith: Wow, 60%.

Niles: Yeah, I was a bit shocked by that too and I thought, 'Well, what are the educational opportunities that need to be presented to those students when we don't even know yet what those options are?' I think about social media and communications and how 10 years ago, we were not talking about Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or any of these as a tool to be used in the recruitment of students or to market an institution or create an enhanced visibility as an institution, and now we have departments devoted to that. And not just at institutions, obviously. We see that in other industries as well, but it certainly is a…for me, it's an ongoing example of how quickly things can change and how we are really going to have to prepare ourselves for changes that we don't yet know what exactly will look like.

Wyatt: Yeah, and we have academic departments that are leading students to degrees in social media.

Niles: Mhmm, sure.

Wyatt: I was just talking the other day with a business owner and his total marketing budget goes to Facebook. It's its only marketing.

Niles: Wow. Well, and the amount of…you know, we talked a bit about some of the institutions looking to attract large numbers of students, and the amount of money that can be spent to be really impactful and effective in marketing is in certainly the millions of dollars. But you certainly see how that pays off in creating a sense of awareness and visibility. Who doesn't know about Southern New Hampshire University? And I know sometimes I…I know I live in an educational bubble, so not everybody may know in the way I do, but I think the general public is pretty aware because they've worked hard to make themselves relevant to such a broad population of people.

Wyatt: Yes. And some of those schools have, as you've pointed out because you've seen the ads and many of us have, that they're spending a lot of money on marketing.

Niles: Absolutely, absolutely.

Wyatt: A huge amount of money on marketing. One of the things that you mention in your Chronicle article was the cost of education. That family incomes haven't really grown that much over the last 20 years, but the cost of education continues to climb and has climbed much faster than inflation. How much of a factor do you think that is?

Niles: I think that's a huge factor. It's something that I worry about every day and I see every day in the role that I play at Ohio Wesleyan. I see students who are eager for the type of education that we can provide to them, and yet our resources don't stretch far enough to meet the full financial need of every student. More students come to us with that financial need and families are concerned about taking out loans, taking…they're not as easy to secure as they were 10 or 15 years ago before the recession, and there's also the question around value as well. So, are they willing to spend the money? Will the degree pay off in the long run if they put the resources into it? And you and I can both cite…

Wyatt: Right.

Niles: Articles which indicate that yes, a college degree is necessary and the training and the skill sets that one develops in a college curricular experience will help prepare them for all of the knowns and the unknowns in the future, but there's certainly a lot in the popular press about the lack of value in a college degree and that the need, the great debts that some students have gone into that they haven't seen paid off for them. And, of course, you get a few of those stories and they get a lot of attention that may not be the reality for all families, but you hear that and you start to become concerned about what your future might look like.

Wyatt: Yeah and…

Niles: So, I think it's…

Wyatt: No, go ahead.

Niles: Sorry go ahead. I was just going to say, I just think it's a really critical issue and I think of the University of Chicago now, I think of the first institution to have crossed the $80,000 total cost threshold and where is it going to stop? AT my former institution at Dickinson College, we had looked at the fact that in 13 years, and this was a couple of years ago, but we would cross the $100,000 threshold if we were to continue raising tuition and fees at the rate that we were at that particular time. Again, that's not very far in the future, and there doesn't appear to be the same projection of family income increasing at that level. We know that there are more students of color who are college-bound or who are of college going age and that will only continue…that population will continue to grow. But typically, those families, the African American and Latino families particularly don't have the same average income as your white families do. And so, we're just seeing a change because of the demographics and what does the college-going population look like and how they perceive cost and what's really a reality for them. I remember a few years ago that I would get appeals from students who were looking for more money to make college work. And they might…some of them needed the resources, some of them were just playing a game. It was, 'Well, if this school gave me a little more, could you match that?' And trying to see where they'd get the best deal. But I remember coming into a time where it was no longer about, 'This school gave me this, could you do a little bit better?' But, 'I can't afford to go anywhere even though I have these four offers in hand, is there any way you can help me more?' And I feel like I hear more of that today than i…certainly than I used to eight to ten years ago.

Wyatt: Yeah, and you and I can see the…Steve and you and I can see the return on investment of a college education and we can make, with great data, a whole bunch of wonderful points about that, but it's not important what we think. What's important is, is what the future students think.

Niles: Absolutely, absolutely.

Wyatt: And that's where it lies. But I'm kind of hoping perhaps that one of the outcomes of this crisis, if we can call it that, the enrollment challenges that we're seeing across the country, I'm hoping that one of the outcomes is that we all recognize that the cost have continued to rise much faster than inflation and that perhaps there needs to be some serious look at the cost of higher education. It's certainly going to be important as we see the demographics of the population of the United States shift.

Niles: Mhmm.

Wyatt: To be minority majority. Just so many people that can't afford to go.

Niles: Well, and then there's an interesting set of questions that are posed when you start to look at college costs and institutions obviously who've made some decisions around resetting their tuition or reducing their tuition to match the in-state tuition at another institution or rewarding certainly populations, perhaps, with a parent working from a public service field or something of that nature. Institutions have taken these steps…I would venture to say that not many of them have been particularly successful. They might recognize a year or two of enrollment gain and revenue gain, but it seems that often times, those gains are short lived if they're not followed by significant change within the institutional structure of curriculum that continues to allow families to seek out those options that they're not as interested in making that change. So, I think that it's tough for one institution to do it all on its own, to drop their tuition, because you compete with other institutions. And so, if we suddenly say we're worth $20,000 or we're going to cost $20,000 less, what's to prevent that student from saying, 'Well, then you must be worth $20,000 less than the institution next door?'

Wyatt: That's right.


Niles: We all know that there's this Chivas Regal effect that very much exists in this process. My son is a college freshman and as he was going through the search process, he went to a private high school and said, 'Mom, kids won't look at schools that don't cost a lot. They think that cost says something about value.' And that was not…I didn't say that to him. He came up with that based on his own conversations with his well-educated classmates who came from well-educated backgrounds who really saw this alignment with cost equates to value. But, back to where we were, the bubble is going to burst. I don't know where or when, but at some point it will. And how do we come together without being accused of colluding to try and find some answers to these issues?

Wyatt: I read an article recently about how to prepare for retirement…I don't know why I think about that, Steve.

Meredith: [Laughs] I don't know either.

Wyatt: Stephanie, I'm sure you're not nearly as old as Steve and I.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: But, fortunately, Steve is older than me, so he can tell me what it's like.

Niles: Very good. There you go, I'm going to…

Wyatt: A year ahead.

Meredith: I'm a year older than you. [All laugh]

Wyatt: But I read this article about preparing for retirement and one of the points in it was, 'Stop sending your children to expensive private schools.'

Niles: Wow.

Wyatt: Because you need to put that money in your retirement account, and find a school that's affordable rather than the most expensive one that you can get your kid into. I thought that was an interesting piece of advice.

Niles: It is. And that's what has led to the proliferation of merit scholarships, right?

Meredith: Right.

Niles: You know, every student getting a merit scholarship, right? And particularly in some parts of the country. Ohio, for example, is a very merit heavy, merit rich market and we are vastly competing against each other with who gives and gets the bigger scholarship. But, we've done this to ourselves. We've done it in response to a need and a desire, but again, I think that it is also out of control. How can we meet the need of students truly with financial need if our monies are going to students without, but will we enroll those students who have the resources to pay if they don't get that scholarships because they've come to expect it? So, it's a really conundrum I think at this point in time.

Wyatt: Yeah, a lot of students want to go to a place where their ego is stroked.

Meredith: Yep.

Niles: Mhmm, sure.

Wyatt: Where, 'I feel very valued, somebody has given me a scholarship, there's something special about me.' And that is fully understandable.

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: But I'll tell you in Utah, it appears to us, at least in our part of the world where we have almost no private schools, there's very few. In Utah, we have, of note, two.

Meredith: Westminster.

Wyatt: We have Westminster and Brigham Young University. And in Nevada, there's not much and the same thing is true with…there's just fewer of them.

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: In Arizona and Idaho and these places. Students seem to be really focused on cost. They seem to be focused on convenience and cost.

Niles: Mhmm.

Wyatt: And they're going to take the school that will cost them the least and is the most convenient. You've already mentioned that about going somewhere that's close to home.

Niles: Right. And I think that makes sense. You know, you think about how vastly different that is than the densely populated New England area where there's so many options, so many different types of options, but where there's a much longer history of certain types of institutions being relevant and present in that part of the country and the different ways that families are willing to invest. But again, I still think we are in a position where it's becoming no longer a question of a willingness for a percentage of the population, but it's an ability to afford because of the escalating costs. And my Director of Financial Aid, former Director of Financial Aid, I remember talking to him about a family with a half a million dollar income that was concerned about paying for private costs. I think about my current director and some of the comments that are made about, 'Oh, this is a wealthy family.' And that family has a $230,000 income, perhaps. That is absolutely in the context of this country, that is a wealthy family. But when you ask that family to take $65,000 out of their year, how many families have prepared themselves to make that sort of investment? Have saved for it or have downsized or changed the way they are conducting themselves on a daily basis living their daily life to suddenly be able to put $65,000 towards their child's education?

Meredith: Yep, you're exactly right.

Wyatt: Most people that live within 300 miles of our school would say they're not doing it. But this is interesting because of these…the communities and the cultures that we grow up in. In Utah, there is one private liberal arts school and there are no public liberal arts schools. So, we've got one. 

Niles: Mhmm.

Wyatt: I don't think there's a single liberal arts school in Nevada, is there Steve?

Meredith: I don't think so. Not that I'm aware of anyway.

Wyatt: If there is, we haven't heard of it.

Niles: Yeah, I'm trying to think…

Wyatt: It's just a very uncommon thing…

Niles: Yeah, absolutely.

Wyatt: In the Rocky Mountain states.

Niles: Sure.

Meredith: And so, in some ways, that insulates us from some of the trouble that folks are having, but it also…we share many of the same problems that our sister institutions in New England would have except ours is based on being remote and rural.

Niles: Mhmm.

Meredith: And so, you suggest people don't want to go far away from home to go to school, they…you have to go far away from home to come to Cedar City.

Wyatt: To come here.

Meredith: Yeah.

Niles: Sure.

Wyatt: Well, Stephanie…

Niles: One of the other…I was just going to say, one of the other articles was written by Rick Clark who is at Georgia Tech and he wrote from a somewhat similar perspective of what you're talking about where, again, they're in an area of growth. Many students coming from Georgia, very strong reputation, serving students particularly in the STEM field which, again, where many institutions are seeing increasing interest in those types of programs. So, his perspective was very different on the enrollment, 'the looming enrollment crisis' if you will because of the area of the country in which he sits. Again, I don't think any of us can afford to be complacent, but certainly not all parts of the country are the same or are dealing with these issues in quite the same way.

Wyatt: This has been a delight visiting with you. If you had one piece of advice to give colleges and universities throughout the country, what would that one thing be? In closing?

Niles: I think it would be to go back to what we said before about asking tough questions. To do the work, do the hard work. Ensure that you are, as an institution, really know who you are, who you will best serve, the ways in which you will best serve those populations, ensure that you aren't missing any opportunities that may exist, be willing to take some calculated risk but understand what that risk might look like through a real thorough review of the data before taking that plunge.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We've had join us by phone today from Delaware, Ohio, Stephanie Niles who is the Vice President for Enrollment and Communications at

Ohio Wesleyan University and also the immediate past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. We thank Stephanie for joining us, and we thank you, our listeners, for tuning in. We'll be back again soon, bye bye.