Episode 83 - Your College is Not an Exception

This week on the podcast we talk with Madeleine Rhyneer from Richmond, Virginia where she is the Vice President for Consulting and Dean of Enrollment Services at EAB. She recently had an article published entitled "No, Your College is Not An Exception" in the Chronicle of Higher Education and we just had to discuss that with her.

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 in-studio today, as I always am, by President Wyatt. Scott, how are you?

Scott Wyatt: Terrific, thanks Steve.

Meredith: There's spring in the air.

Wyatt: Yeah, it was beautiful outside this morning.

Meredith: Yeah, we took a walk yesterday afternoon and noticed that the trees were all just about the bloom. Great news, great for people who love the outdoors like you do and bad news for the allergy sufferers.

Wyatt: It's just nice to have the weather warm and the sun to come out. It just puts a little bit of a coat of optimism on everything going on.

Meredith: It does, yeah. It does. Well, we have been talking for the last few podcasts about an article or a series of articles really that was bundled together by The Chronicle of Higher Education called, "The Looming Enrollment Crisis" and one of the contributors penned a small article whose title was, "No, Your College is Not an Exception." And that just really caught my eye and I thought, "We should talk to her on the podcast." So, why don't you go ahead and introduce our guest and we'll talk to her.

Wyatt: Well, we're delighted to have, live from Richmond, Virginia—well, live for us.

Meredith: Yeah, live on the phone.

Wyatt: it won't be live by the time the audience hears it. [Both laugh] Delighted to have Madeleine Rhyneer from Richmond, Virginia. Vice President for Consulting and Dean of Enrollment Services at EAB. Welcome, Madeleine.

Madeleine Rhyneer: Thank you very, very much. I really appreciate that, Scott and Steve, it's a big privilege for me to join you. Just to provide a context, I'm glad you liked that title because I…that's actually been the theme of conversations that I have had on the campuses where I've served. I'm a long-term vice president for enrollment, I actually served in that role at five different institutions. Lest you think it's because I can't keep a job, [All laugh] I'm a builder and a fixer. I've decided professionally, maintaining is not as intriguing to me. I'm originally from the west coast, I grew up outside of Seattle. I'm a very proud Whitman College graduate. I also have a master's of business administration from Willamette University in Oregon. And so, I…as I think about enrollment issues, my bring not just an enrollment manager's lens, but also a marketing and communication lens and then an economics and finance sort of perspective, because, of course, enrollment drives revenue at most institutions. So, again, thanks for having me join you.

Wyatt: Yeah. Well, it's really an honor for us, so thanks for giving us some of your time this morning. Well, "Your College is Not…"

Meredith: "An Exception."

Wyatt: "An Exception."

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: What do you mean by that?

Rhyneer: So, my observation as an enrollment leader and certainly as I would talk to my friends and colleagues across the country is most people look at the looming demographic crisis in '25, '26, it's always, "That's the other guy's problem, because we, whatever our institution is, we are so special and we have such a unique sort of offering to students and families that the trend that could be impacting other people, it just…it won't impact us." And so, I feel like it's important to have honest conversations and sometimes they end up being pretty direct conversations to say, "Actually, to the public, we all do more or less the same thing, and we do it more or less close to them, more or less well or not-well, more or less online or in a virtual format." And that sort of the traditional, "If we build it because we're here, they will come," that just isn't working anymore. And I think especially, and this was born out of the results that then became clear later in the fall of 2019 because so many schools last year did not meet their enrollment headcount or net tuition revenue goals or both that there was, because I'm a huge Star Wars fan, there was a big disturbance in the force. [All laugh] Many people have believed that you see all the demographic charts and everyone is reading Nathan Grawe's work and trying to plan ahead, you thought you had some time to inoculate yourself, your institution, against these pretty discouraging market demand numbers. And yet, with the disturbance this last fall, I think it…to me, it makes even more clear the notion. When the most elite schools in the country are failing to meet their enrollment goals or those who have to work really hard every year to do that, you just need to recognize you're not that special and you're going to need to…you're going to need to think about things differently to be successful in both the current market and the market that's coming.

Wyatt: You know, we sometimes think and find some basis in the data to suggest that those of us that are in some of these western states have some immunity to this enrollment crisis, but, I was visiting with the presidents of all of the Big Sky Athletic Conference schools—so, for those that are listening, the presidents of the schools in an athletic conference constitute the governing board of the conference so we have to get together several times a year and plan and strategize and work through things for our conference—and I was talking to one of the presidents of one of our schools in Montana who said that over the last eight years, their enrollments have dropped 40%.

Meredith: Wow.

Wyatt: That's the University of Montana and they would have thought they were immune from this.

Meredith: Because their the flagship for…

Wyatt: They're the flagship school, they're in a western state…that's not unique. I think that most of the universities in the Big Sky Conference, which is Montana, Idaho, Utah, Arizona…

Meredith: Northern Arizona…

Wyatt: Colorado, a couple…there's one in Portland and…

Meredith: Eastern Washington.

Wyatt: One in Washington. Most of those institutions are struggling right now with one thing or another.

Meredith: So, we're not immune here in the west.

Wyatt: We're not immune, yeah.

Meredith: Yeah.

Rhyneer: Well, no, you're not. One of the challenges is that for…there are states in the country, there are few states in the country who will have a growing demographics, but there are some that are holding steady. But of course, like a hoard of locusts, enrollment managers are convening on those states. I know you're a former politician, Scott, and just like politics, higher education is primarily local. And it…you know, you can have a national audience, but still, most people do not travel more than a couple hundred miles to go to college. And the vast majority are traveling far less than a couple of hundred miles. And so, for a school, let's say in the northeast, which has been having high school graduate declines for years, for them to believe that they can just miraculously mound a successful strategy in Florida or in Texas, I mean, it's a good option, but it's not going to save them because it will just…it's just really hard to persuade students to go that far from home. So, I think these are challenging times for institutions, but what you very kindly didn't say is that there are sort of…there are some winners, some losers even in our present environment. And winning and losing is not totally driven by shrewdness about enrollment practices, it's also driven by academic offerings, positioning, an institution's very clear sense of self and capacity to communicate that to all of their relevant audiences. So, yeah, we definitely…one would not expect the University of Montana to be struggling, but we know that they are.

Wyatt: Yeah. And it's a long list. You know, we've…I don't remember what the last count was of how many universities in the United States have closed or merged in order to survive, but it's a growing list. And this particular climate that we're in, I don't want to spend too much time talking about the coronavirus, but this particular climate we're in is just one more dynamic that's going to have an impact on our future. It seems to me that the message ought to be, "We're all a little vulnerable and we need to be our best." And being our best is something that we don't always know what that is, I think. One of the things that you wrote in your article, there's a line here that I thought was just fascinating and I'd love to explore that just a little bit with you, Madeleine. You wrote, "Most families view college as a transaction, not as a time of transformation."

Meredith: Them's fightin' words for faculty. [All laugh]

Wyatt: Yeah, those are words we don't want to hear.

Meredith: Yeah, yeah.

Wyatt: Would you talk to us about that?

Rhyneer: Sure. So, I have always believed that one of the most important roles an enrollment leader plays at an institution is to bring back the reality of the outside world to the academy. Because, you know, universities are these wonderful bubbles of faculty members who talk to each other and then they talk to their faulty colleagues at other places. And there may be faculty are impacted when their own children are going through the college search and maybe that turns a light on, but often, especially at private schools if there's some sort of tuition benefit, they're indemnified from having to make choices based on financial realities. And so, when you think about…so, in all of the work that I would do as an enrollment leader with families, people are willing to make the investment in higher education. It isn't that they're unwilling for the most part, there is more questioning of the value of a college degree, but in exchange, what they're looking for is assurance that the investment of the student's time and the investment of the family's money is going to lead to the outcome that they desire. And for the vast majority of students, that immediate outcome would be meaningful work.

Wyatt: So, the fact that students are really looking for a transaction, that they're really hoping to come and get a job, doesn't mean that we can't be super transformative for them in their lives, right?

Rhyneer: Correct. I mean, education is transformative. It changes young people's lives, but of course, they can't really figure out how that happens and it sounds a little scary. So, my advice for faculty always is it isn't that this doesn't happen, it's that it happens once they arrive. Because of course we…I mean, if you're in higher education, you absolutely believe in the transformative power and it changes people's futures. It changes them economically, it changes them in terms of their engagement with their community, provides better health and quality of life. But those sound kind of abstract. So, with families, if you can lead with, "Here are the demonstrable outcomes that we can share with you about your likely path if you're a student at this university" and then let the transformation occur organically as it absolutely will.

Wyatt: Yeah, I remember a discussion with one of our English faculty members who is a wonderful faculty member, but said to me, "I don't want anything about what I teach to be occupational. I want them to learn how to read poetry for the sake of reading poetry and I don't want anything else to be there. I just want this to be a pure learning experience." And I think the answer at the time was, "Well, go for it. But please know that we can't recruit students here to read poetry without there being an outcome more than just their great learning experience." So, our job kind of is, I think what you're saying too, our job is to help students understand the value of getting the education towards their future jobs. And then we've got to be able to show that students are getting jobs. So, it's on the inside and outside. But between those two as they're preparing for jobs, we can give them all kinds of things to excite them about learning and everything else.

Meredith: And as much as…you know, I'm a music guy, so learning music for the sake of learning music is a wonderful thing, but there are things you learn in learning music and in learning poetry that help you in your work. And I've always thought that while it's wonderful to imagine that students are taking only this shared joy of whatever it is that we're studying together, the truth is they are also learning in many…I'm a choir guy, for example, they're learning teamwork skills, they're learning how to work with others in small groups and large groups, they're learning how to memorize. That's a very important skill. And in reading poetry, there are soft skills that people take from a creative writing class or a poetry class that are very helpful, actually, and helpful even in the minds of employers. We actually regularly get people that are employers say, "We wish people wrote better" or "We wish they spoke better. WE wish they had greater communication skills." So, even the very highest study of art in its most esoteric sense can also be very meaningful to you in a job.

Rhyneer: I like to think that every moment is a teachable moment with young people or learners of any age, really. There are teachable moments. And I feel like the best learning happens when students get really excited about a discipline. And often what really excites them is not the idea that, "Oh this is going to lead to a job" although that's their end goal, but it's that there's a passion that a professor brings to a discipline.

Meredith: Absolutely.

Rhyneer: And their excitement and enthusiasm is absolutely contagious for students. And I also feel that faculty members, if it just feels like, as this case you described with your English colleague, that's where the really good work of career development teams and others I think really tie in. because they are tied to the real world and to employers and they are the ones who help students understand, "Here's how I translate the fact that i learned to read amazing poetry and then to write about it and approach it in a meaningful way." Well, employers, you're absolutely right, employers are looking for that all day long. So, helping students understand that some of the things that they think, "This may not be relevant" in fact will be exactly relevant. But I think helping them connect the dots, and faculty members can do that because their own current students, well, if you could without coronavirus have a big program on campus for your admitted students, often students and faculty members partner up. And so, the faculty members talk about the discipline and the import of the discipline and its value and then students are there talking about, "And here's how I translated that into internships in the summer," and, "Here's how I'm thinking about leveraging my major in creative writing into what's going to be really exciting and meaningful employment for me." And most importantly, the kind of employment that would allow them to pay on their student loans if they have them. But I think I want faculty members to be really excited about the work that they do, even if it's not accounting or something that's directly professionally related because all of it will help to make the student a happier and likely more productive employee once they do work.

Wyatt: Madeleine, you've been involved in a lot of organizations, five different universities, helping them with their enrollment management, you've been a trustee of the college board, you're involved with NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) right now…there aren't that many people in the country that—and you're a consultant now helping lots of universities—there aren't that many people that really understand this better than you. The kind of messaging to students, what they're looking for, how we can make that a meaningful experience, how we can keep our institutions vibrant, alive, and growing. You also said something earlier that I'd love to hear more about, and that is that "families and students count on universities to do the right thing." Talk about that if you would?

Rhyneer: Well, I think in addition to the investment of time and money, everyone who is attending college, whether it's a two year program, a four-year undergraduate degree, everyone brings a lot of hopes and dreams for that academic and personal transformation, if you will. They bring those hopes and dreams to the table. And so, when…of course, colleges and universities, they are their own business entities and they need to be concerned about being successful and having the financial resources to provide the educational opportunities that they do, but at the same time, especially in times when the demographic suggests that those who are going to college is changing and sadly, there will just be fewer of them going forward, that there are likely to be winners and losers in this scenario and that those schools who I think will be the most successful will be those who bring compassion and empathy and caring for families and students in whatever situations they find themselves and at the same time are just incredibly honest about who they are and, as I'm wont to say, and what they stand for. Because standing for something in a challenging market is really important. And of course, when you stand for something then you're clearly saying, "And there are some things that are not the things we stand for. They're not the things that we do really well." But I believe that making the decisions in the interest of students means being really authentic about who you are and who you best serve and allowing that to sort of pay itself forward into success. Because when you stand for everything, in the minds of families, you really, you stand for nothing because they can't understand how you are different from the other options that they're pursuing. And most of them are [inaudible] that they can tie those hopes and dreams into the right location, right program, the right size of community or kind of community that's really going to help them grow into the person that they hope to be.

Wyatt: Can you give us an example of that? Can you think of a…?

Rhyneer: The being authentic about yourself?

Wyatt: Yeah.

Rhyneer: Well, one of the things that I've been challenging people with in my new role in the last few months is to ask people, "What's your elevator pitch?" Which is the business way of saying, "What's the 20 second introduction to your university to a person who really doesn't know you at all?" And most people sort of look at me like, "Oh my goodness." Or they'll go to, "Well, we're really friendly" or "We're small." And I'm like, "OK, for ‘friendly' is pretty much table stakes in any kind of market where you're serving people and small is not a point of distinction at all." So, I think it's a really bit of hard internal work but can be really great work for communities to come together about, "We're going to be really clear about who we are and then focus our communication around that. Because by being really clear who we are and communicating that effectively, people will understand us." And people want to buy things, if you will, that they at least feel like they have a handle on, like, "What is it that I'm getting?" So, if your big primary focus is serving local employers, then how does that work? So, everybody gets an internship or things kind of thing. Talk about that. If you're a school that requires every student to have an off-campus study experience because one of your core values is building cultural and global competence, talk about that. It doesn't necessarily make you unique in the market, there's not a lot of uniqueness, but it does mean, "These are the things that every person who comes to our place can expect to experience." And it gives students and families a chance to measure themselves against it and say, "Is this going to be my best college fit?"

Wyatt: Sometimes that's a challenge.

Meredith: It is.

Wyatt: Because we live in a world where there's, I don't know how many, 1,000, I don't know what the number is, public regional universities. And in some ways, we're all the same.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: In a different community.

Rhyneer: Well, I agree. But there's always differences in culture. It's culture. So, here's a great enrollment example. I mean, it's terrifying to think as a professional that you put your professional success in the hands of 17 and 18-year-olds when in fact you do. And even though I feel like I'm old, I still remember how I feel when my father and I made college visits. And there is, awesome for people, the moment where they step on campus and they go, "Oh, yeah. This is the place for somebody like me." And of course, the "me" is unique to them, but they walk around and they see people and they see how people are interacting and they sit in on a class or two and they see how faculty members are interacting with students. Again, everybody has their own unique piece of what it is that makes them feel most comfortable, but it is the, "This is the place for somebody like me." And even though you can't articulate it and a student couldn't either, some of it is about the culture of the place. Is it a competitive place? Is it a friendly place? Is it a supportive place? It's all these sort of subliminal messages that students pick up. And I do think that whether or not we think that we project that as a college or university, you do when people step on your campus. Does everybody talk to them and say, "Hello?" Does nobody talk to them and say, "Hello?" Do they wish no one would talk to them and say, "Hello?"

Meredith: Right, right.

Rhyneer: All of that is sort of unique to the student. But I do think that people do form impressions of you when you come on campus, based on what they see and experience and that they're forming a picture about you and who you are even if you're not trying to expressly communicate what that is. I mean, I think student's perceptions are pretty good, actually, even though it terrifies me, but people know. You know when you walk on a place where you're like, "This is a great school, but this is not a great school for me."

Meredith: Do you think that authenticity in messaging, do you think that will, as things become more and more competitive, do you think that will begin to drive programmatic changes? We've been watching with some interest the University of Tulsa which had a long history of being primarily I think a petroleum engineering school and other science related things and then with the same growth that virtually every university went through and kind of the Wal-mart-izing of higher ed, they tried to be everything to everyone. And they've recently just said, "You know what, we're going to return to our roots and we're going to mostly discharge our folks that teach liberal education because we're going to return to what we have traditionally done the best and is our strongest suit." Do you see that happening as…becoming a more nationwide trend?

Rhyneer: I do. Whether it happens that you diversified your academic programs and then think, "Well, that didn't think in the way that we, of course, had hoped that it would" and you return to your roots. I think in some cases, for schools that are, and this is primarily all where I have worked, for schools that are primarily liberal arts and sciences, the number of students who want to study English and history, nationally that has really declined.

Meredith: Right.

Rhyneer: And that's a sad commentary because these are fabulous and meaningful disciplines, both of them for some similar and for some different reasons. So, I think that figuring out how to both educate young people in ways that colleges and universities will be meaningful and helpful to them in their professional careers, and then at the same time, not abandoning some of the traditional disciplines that have driven the development of higher ed in the U.S. for more than 200 years. I think there's sort of a balance to be walked there, and honestly, I don't know what it looks like because I think individual schools kind of have to figure that out. But it could be that the pure study of liberal arts becomes a smaller sort of even more boutique kind of opportunity for students that it is today and that other institutions really double down on sort of what would be perceived as more professional majors: business as opposed to just economics and adding communication and having just a school of accounting majors, things of that kind. But I think, again, and it's easy for me to say because I'm not worried—well, I worry about a lot of institutions and their financial vitality—turning away from the things you have done traditionally to move in new directions, there's risk associated with that as well. And so, I live in sort of this my glass is always kind of half full, I don't want the pure liberal arts, which were so meaningful to me in my intellectual development, to go away, but I also think that those who prosper will be those who are most able to articulate how these more esoteric disciplines are preparing you for success professionally. To connect those dots for students and families. Because students are so pragmatic these days. They're very pragmatic about what they want to study and I think if we don't help them understand, it will diminish the value of their experience and it will diminish the universities themselves.

Wyatt: Well, we've got an interesting future ahead of us and it's always a good reminder to focus on what is it that the students want? What do they see as being relevant to them? How can we meet their needs? And at the same time, how can we instill in them the values that are important to us? And I'm confident that we can find all of these things. And you…our conversation today with you reinforces that in my mind.

Rhyneer: Well, that is a very eloquent way to summarize. I mean, it's our duty and our obligation, and of course, for me it was my passion and pleasure, to help young people discover and build the futures that they saw for themselves. That's why I got up every day. To help a young person achieve their dream of a college education, even if it wasn't always at my school.

Wyatt: Yeah, I have a liberal arts degree that was in philosophy and sometimes people ask me about that and I'll say, "I'm a philosopher every day. I read, I think, I analyze, I communicate. Those are all things. It's a very practical, career-oriented degree for me, philosophy. [Laughs]

Meredith: Absolutely. Absolutely was.

Wyatt: Even though it doesn't seem so. Nobody was hiring philosophers, but everybody was hiring people who could think, read, communicate, understand, analyze.

Meredith: Think logically, sure.


Wyatt: Yeah, problem solve…well, thank you so much Madeleine, it's been a delight visiting with you this morning.

Rhyneer: Scott and Steve, thank you so much for including me. Thanks for your time and I can't wait to see the next things in the future of Southern Utah. 

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 as a guest via telephone from Richmond, Virginia today, Madeleine Rhyneer who is a Vice President for Consulting and Dean of Enrollment Services at EAB which is a Washington, D.C. based consulting firm. We thank Madeleine for her kind attention to us today and we also thank you, our devoted listeners, for lending us your ears. We'll be back with another podcast soon. Stay safe, stay healthy. Bye bye.