Episode 45 - Innovation: New Business Models for Higher Education

The current series of podcasts is focused on innovation, and we’re excited to showcase ideas from various industries and people worldwide. In episode 45, President Scott L Wyatt and Professor Steve Meredith invite senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education Scott Carlson to discuss how the business needs of universities can drive innovation.

Article: Enough ‘Do More With Less.’ It’s Time for Colleges to Find Actual Efficiencies.

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, as always, I’m joined today in-studio, by President Wyatt. Hi, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Hello, Steve, it’s terrific to be with you today and I’m excited to talk to our guest.

Meredith: Yeah, this should be a really fun podcast. So, this is a continuing…another continuing part of our innovation focus. And I don’t know that maybe a lot of people from the outside know, but there are publications, of course, that are insider publications for every line of work, really—magazines and news reports and other things. And I think, without question, the longest running, biggest, most important 500 gorilla probably in our work is The Chronicle of Higher Education that’s certainly something that we all subscribe to and we watch and we’re excited when we’re mentioned there and so forth, and so, we actually have a guest joining us from The Chronicle today.

Wyatt: And The Chronicle is a great source of information for us about interesting things going on around the country. We’re delighted to welcome Scott Carlson, who is a senior writer for the Chronicle, and Scott, I think you’ve been writing for The Chronicle for 20 years?

Scott Carlson: That’s right, and it’s a pleasure to be on your show. Thanks for having me.

Wyatt: Yeah, well thanks for joining us. 20 years of writing about colleges and universities…

Carlson: Indeed.

Wyatt: You have got to have seen some interesting things in 20 years.

Meredith: Yeah. [Both laugh]

Carlson: Seen a lot of interesting things. Last time I was in Utah, I actually visited a prison with Utah State University, so, that was interesting, and saw prison education up close. I was just talking with someone about that the other day. I’ve seen colleges go out of business, you know, it’s given me the opportunity to visit with potters who have the largest wood-fired kiln in North America. I’ve seen university cops who have gotten in trouble shooting folks, I’ve reported on that, I’ve reported on a bunch of things. And in some ways over 20 years, you’d think you’d see a lot of change in higher education, but really, I was just saying to someone the other day, a lot of the things we were talking about in 1999 when I started at The Chronicle we’re still talking about today and still grappling with today. It’s a slow-moving industry in some ways but I think in the recent years now it’s primed for good changes in the future.

Wyatt: When you think of innovation—your comment about things kind of look a lot like they did look 20 years ago—but when you think of innovation in colleges and universities, what comes to mind to you?

Carlson: When I think of innovation, I think of…you know, I really think about startups. These startups in higher education that are really unusual and different, and you don’t see them come along very often. And one of the places that I think about is a place called the College of the Atlantic which is up in Maine. You know, startups often in higher education are small colleges. They’re very nimble, they can move rapidly toward one idea or another and they can set up an environment that maybe defies expectations in a certain way. So, some years ago I wrote about COA which is in Bar Harbor, Maine. It was established in the late 1960s which was this time in higher education when there were a number of institutions that were sort of being formed on an experimental basis. I think you saw this in the early part of the 20th century and then later in the 1960s and ‘70s and most of those colleges didn’t survive. But COA did. It only has 300 students, it was established by a fellow who was a dean at Harvard, and it was established with the intention of trying to provide another source of attraction and economic development for this tiny town of Bar Harbor, Maine which at the time when it was established was this town that had once been very wealthy—it had been a vacation area for the Rockefellers, among others—but after a fire had swept through the island, many of the rich folks that spend their summers there abandoned the place for other places. So, they said, “We need something that will carry this place during the off years and the non-summer times.” And they came up with the idea of this college that didn’t have…it only had one major, which was human ecology, and that could mean anything. And so, they set no rules around that. And they also wanted to establish a college that was very small in its nature, and the reason they wanted they wanted to do that was because they didn’t want to develop the kind of disciplinary silos that would then divide the colleges along these kinds of territories that you see now in higher education that we’re still trying to break down in higher education. So, what came out of that was just this very interesting place where students are encouraged, because of the size of the place, students are encouraged to discover their own path. They’re given support from the professors on how to do that, but they’re told up front, “Look, this is a place that’s very small and we don’t have the resources that a larger university would have. We don’t have the ability to build million-dollar lab buildings and so on, so it’s up to you to write some of the grants and to go after some of the things you want…to buy the equipment you want to do for the research you want to do. And it gives these students a real grounding and a kind of entrepreneurial spirit I think because they have to do things themselves, because they have to discover things themselves. It reminds me a lot of another small place established around innovation which is Goddard College, this is over in Vermont. Again, same thing going on there where it’s a very small college—was a very small college. Well, when it was established by Tim Pitkin back in the 1930s, once they said was, “We’re going to establish a college where people can come here, and they can determine their own path toward the future.” And so, you enroll at Goddard and the first thing that they ask you is, “What do you want to learn about?” And so, you can declare what you want to learn about, you can decide your path. And then they say, “OK, how do you want to show what you’re learning?” And the students inevitably pick a range of books to read, essays that they’ll write, things that they’ll do, presentations, it’s different for every semester. And then they’re in constant contact with a kind of faculty advisor who guides them through this process. And they say each and every time, “This is the most challenging and rewarding educational experience I’ve ever had.” So, I think about those things when I think about innovation in terms of the…from the educational standpoint. There’s innovation in business and innovation in operations and so on, and things that colleges are sort of repeating or rediscovering year after year, but for me, the real interesting innovation is happening on the education space. And in those ways, at a time when the K-12 environment—I have two kids in K-12 right now—when the K-12 environment is all about taking facts and stuffing them down the throats of young people…

Wyatt: [Laughs] That’s right.

Carlson:…Really turning them off to the beauty, to the discovery, to the love of learning, we still have these institutions that put the learning first and make the love of learning, make the pleasure sort of the primary purpose for being there. And worrying less—at that moment at least—worrying less about what the ROI is on the education. Not that the ROI isn’t important, it is, but I feel like if you’re going through the process with a kind of passion in mind, you’ll figure out how to get an ROI out of it. That’s what I feel about it. So, innovation. That’s what I think about when I think about innovation. I think about places like that. There are other ways to look at innovation. I mean, you could look at a place like Concordia University in St. Paul which does a lot of work on the front end to make sure that their processes, their courses are well established. That they’re going to make money off of these things, that there’s a market for students on the back end after they graduate. People call that innovative in higher education. To me, that just seems like good business sense, good practice. And so, I don’t think of that as really an innovation. I tend to think of these more radical ideas.

Wyatt: How does this ROI play into radical ideas? If we focus too much on the business model, does that keep us from being creative? Or does it make it more possible to be creative?

Carlson: I think it makes it more possible, actually. I mean, I think if you have a focus on the business model, on the costs of what it takes for you to produce the courses that you want to offer, what it takes for you to keep the enterprise afloat, I think that makes innovation possible because you’re not just taking blind shots in the dark. A friend of mine, Rick Staisloff, who is a pretty well-known finance guy in higher education, runs the RPK GROUP, he writes a lot about innovation in higher education and has written a lot about the fact that there’s a lot of colleges that sort of…college administrators that just sort of sit back and say, “Let’s be innovative” and they just sort of plow ahead without knowing what the cost of doing their business is. They don’t really know what the market is for what they want to offer, they just think, “Well, we’ve got a good idea and it seems like a really clever idea and so there must be someone out there who will buy it, there must be a market for it.” That’s not really the case. So, in order to make the mission work, you have to know where the money is going and what’s happening with the money. The business side of higher education is really a neglected part of higher education for the most part. In part, because higher education is just such a complicated structure in the first place. I mean, with money coming from all sorts of areas and all sorts of forms—tuition and grants and public funding and payoffs from the endowment and so on—so, it’s difficult to follow all that. And on top of that, higher education is just a very fractured environment anyway, very siloed and very big. A lot of institutions are huge. So, to try to get a handle on that, it’s difficult for a leader to try to turn the boat, so to speak. But, knowing where you are, knowing where you stand is absolutely vital. Absolutely the first step.

Wyatt: It seems that some of the best things that we’ve done here to promote innovation is expand our business office.

Meredith: Just so that we have a better idea of how we’re making a living, or if we’re making a living, yeah.

Wyatt: Right. And then examining the costs and the benefits of different programs.

Carlson: So, let me ask a question around that. Do you think that you would know what it cost you to graduate, say, a business major versus an English major versus an engineering major versus a nursing major? Do you know what it costs you, down to the student, for each of those kinds of majors?

Wyatt: So, we can almost answer that question, and if we had a little bit of time, we could come up with exact answers, but we’ve done this with…we have some kind of raw data that’s out there and then whenever we’re interested in one versus another, we can dive down. For example, we’ve discovered that for philosophy majors, we actually…it costs us less to train a philosopher major than the expense. So, the revenue…revenue exceeds cost.

Carlson: Yeah.

Wyatt: But that’s only because the philosophy majors are taking classes that are also being offered as general ed. And so, it’s serving multiple purposes. But this is really, really complicated as you’re suggested, because, well, what really are the costs for anyone on campus? Because in some ways, all of the expenses support everyone.

Carlson: Yeah, yeah.

Wyatt: And it’s really hard. It’s really, really hard. And every time we talk about, “Well, if we do this new program…” What are the costs of the new program? What are the anticipated revenues associated with the new program? But then how do we plug in the janitor’s costs? You know?

Carlson: Right.

Wyatt: And everything else.

Meredith: Yeah.

Carlson: Right.

Wyatt: Everything else.

Carlson: Right. How do you…yeah, how do you allocate these different kind of costs to the departments or to the students? How do you count all of this stuff? It’s very difficult. There was a college that I profiled some years ago called Brenau University which is down in Georgia, it’s a women’s college. But like all women’s colleges, it has a co-ed graduate program and it’s got some other sort of pre-professional programs that help float the boat. And everyone there is aware that the core women’s college is not a money maker, but it’s the mission of the institution to protect that. So, they have these other sort of revenue-generating parts of the university. And the president was a former mining executive who went there when I was visiting Brenau, and he said—he was an academic who had left academe for a little while to go work in the mining industry and came back—and he said, “You know, when I worked in mining, we’d dig up rocks and we’d sell them for pennies and nickels and dimes and we knew what that was costing us. We knew everything about how things were…how things cost us.” And when  he arrived at the university, he found that the finance office was just a big stack of papers where no one knew anything. No one knew what everything cost. So, he brought in a fellow, someone I worked with on the Sustaining the College Business Model report, who did a kind of forensic accounting evaluation of the college.

Wyatt: [Laughs]

Carlson: And they found interesting things. If you looked at the numbers one way, yes, the women’s college at the core was a money loser and the online college, online distance ed college, was highly profitable if you looked at it one way. If you took those numbers and you followed the students, “Where did the students go and what classes did they take?” You came to a very different conclusion. If the board had looked at the numbers and not dug any further and said, “Oh, the women’s college is losing money. We should just dump that and go online completely.” If they had made that radical decision, they would have killed the entire thing because what they found was that the women who were enrolled in the women’s college were taking half or more of their classes through the online college. They were shifting over as hybrid students. So, in killing the women’s college, if they were to shutter—this in entirely theoretical, it wasn’t on the table—but if they had done that, it would have essentially stripped many…most of the students out of their online college as well. It all would have died. So, knowing the numbers, knowing where the numbers are is absolutely essential for how to plan, how to be strategic and how to innovate around in this very difficult environment. I mentioned Goddard before…they took that very path that I talked about. They had a core college on campus that had been the college that Tim Pitkin founded in the 1930s and then in the 1950s, they founded something called a low-residency program which is now used by four or five dozen colleges across the country. And a low-residency program is kind of a distance ed program buy you spend part of…you know, a week or so on the campus with your cohort. And the traditional college had about 200 students enrolled, it was a very, very small college. The low-residency program had 400 or 500 at the time—I forget the exact numbers, but it was much larger—but they were packing the low-residency students in during the summer. They made a radical decision looking at the numbers, looking at how everything was sort of allocated at the college, they made a radical decision to shutter the traditional on-campus program that ran from September to May and to go completely into the low-residency program all year-round. So, essentially, it was a traditional college with a traditional campus that shifted over to a kind of low-residency distance ed program that revolved over the course of the year, different kinds of programs coming in weeks…for two weeks at a time. You know, you can only do those things if you actually know the numbers of where things are going for your institution and, unfortunately, most of the colleges out there just have really no idea…

Wyatt: They don’t know.

Carlson:…Where to begin.

Wyatt: Well, when you were talking about this…the profitable part of the college versus the unprofitable, Steve and I have friends that have a number of movie theaters. The profitable part of a movie theater is selling candy and drinks.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And popcorn.

Carlson: Right.

Meredith: “Movie for show, popcorn for dough.” That’s the old adage.

Wyatt: Yeah, we’re going to cancel the movies and just sell popcorn, because that’s where we make our money. [All laugh]

Meredith: But you don’t sell any popcorn if there’s no movie.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Carlson: Right, right.

Wyatt: So, what if you were the…what if you were the next president at some college or university? What would you…based on everything that you’ve seen, what would you be interested in doing?

Carlson: What would I be interested in doing? Well, it depends on where that was, and it depends on what kind of institution it was. Where if I were the president of a small college in the Northeast or the Rust Belt or the Upper Midwest, I think I’d be in panic mode right now actually. [All laugh]

Wyatt: Yeah, I think so.

Carlson: You know, there’s a number of institutions in that range, and of course, that’s the geography where you find most of these small colleges. It’s just such a competitive environment for them and I think it’s only going to get worse in the future. I mean, first of all, the demographics are just not good and the prospect of getting more students and bringing more students—traditional aged students anyway—to bring in revenue. It’s just not a good picture.

Wyatt: You’re familiar with…

Carlson: On top of that…go ahead.

Wyatt: You’re familiar with Clayton Christensen?

Carlson: Sure.

Wyatt: Clayton Christensen from Harvard who has predicted this huge percentage of colleges will either go out of business or have to merge into somebody. Do you agree with that?

Carlson: No, I don’t agree with that. I don’t think he’s right. I think there will be a shedding of some of the weaker institutions, I think we’ll see a kind of dwindling among them, but with these small colleges, I’ve seen turnaround after turnaround of these small colleges just because they can be very nimble. But the weakest ones probably…we will see probably an uptick in the number of colleges that do go out of business, these small colleges, but—either do go out of business or do merge—but they do have the ability to…if there’s courage in the leadership, if there’s courage on the board, they do have the ability to move and change and become something else. I mean, it’s happened over and over again.

Wyatt: We visited…

Carlson: You asked me…

Wyatt: No, go ahead.

Carlson: Sure, sorry. Well, you asked me what I would be thinking about. I mean, I really would be thinking about…for a lot of these colleges, there’s some basic stuff that they still are not taking care of that they could take care of. So, one thing is to know the cost, right? We’ve just talked all about that. The other thing is to somehow try to tie the education to relevant outcomes and to audit those outcome and to know, to give some assurance to parents and students. “This is what you’re coming here for and this is what we’re going to provide for you.” I mean, “Even beyond sort of the wonderful education that we think providing here, we’re going to start to connect you with the businesses, the community around us, the alumni around us.”  So, few colleges really take advantage of their alumni in ways that they could. You look at a place like Colgate University which holds this thing called Sophomore Connections. And Colgate has a really strong alumni following, it’s almost cultish, right? Well, what they do is sophomore year…for the sophomores at the beginning of the sophomore year—or middle of the sophomore year, actually—they have these alumni, about 100 alumni come to campus in various kind of clusters of jobs…that can be people who work in media and journalism and entertainment, that can be people who work as doctors but they also might be part of the health sciences in a broader way or they work for Pharma, and they have…these clusters are sort of defined broadly. And they bring the alumni to campus and the alumni hold a full-day session where they break off these clusters and then the students pick three out of say, the 12 clusters or how many clusters there are, they pick three and they go and visit with these and it’s sort of a large sort of Q&A session with these alumni and talk with them, “What’s your job like?” “What do you do?” “What did you major in?” “How did you get into that field?” “If I wanted to get into that, what would I make?” Sort of these basic questions that a lot of students are not getting answered until their senior year in college at most institutions. And that gives these students a huge head start on life after college. A huge foundation in the confidence that they can have in the place where they’re going to school and it’s a huge selling point for Colgate, too. So, these kind of simple things. Parents and students are paying all of this money for the degree, which is essentially a signal to employers, and they want to see something come of that. They want to see something come out of that. If…most colleges and universities right now, even though there’s all of this pressure from the government around “What are you results?” “How efficient are you?” And so on, it’s really a great time for colleges in certain ways, because the wage premium associated with a college degree has grown—has doubled—over the past 40 to 50 years. You essentially have to get some kind of post-secondary degree in order to keep up. That wage premium has doubled, not because college graduates are getting paid so much more than they did in the past, it’s doubled because people with high school only are getting paid so much less. So, just to keep afloat, just to stay steady, you need some kind of post-secondary certification. And so, the market for colleges out there is a really strong market to say, “Hey, come to this place. We’re going to set you up for life. We’re going to provide for you the opportunities.” But the number of colleges who fall down on that who are not…that are not giving students this solid entry into life after college, that are not connecting with students after college and sort of cultivating that relationship, it’s really sort of mind-boggling.

Wyatt: That’s really fasc…it’s just fun to listen to you talk about all of that and this program that Colgate’s doing is really intriguing. I think almost every university has a very loyal alumni following.

Carlson: Every university has a very loyal alumni following?

Wyatt: Has a very loyal…

Carlson: That could be…

Wyatt: Yeah.

Carlson: That could be true. You know, but in my case, I graduated from the University of Minnesota, I was an English literature major, I made myself into pretty decent success…I have no connection with my university. I have no connection with my department, the English department. I just get a letter four times a year saying, “Hey, send us $200 bucks.” [All laugh] There’s no connection.

Meredith: Hey, that’s a connection. Just asking for money. [Laughs]

Carlson: The wrong kind of connection. [All laugh] I mean, it’s the wrong kind of connection. If they had thought…if they were thinking about this more strategically—and this is not, I’m not saying this from any egotistical point of view—they know that I’m out there, they know that I’m doing work around writing and work that I really…where my English major was really valuable in helping me think broadly about the world.

Meredith: Right. You actually are an English major that got a job as a writer. That’s a big deal, yep.

Carlson: I got a job as a writer, that is a big deal and I’m making a decent living off of it. And there are students now at the University of Minnesota majoring in English who want to be writers, who want to be journalists, and I would gladly—I go back to Minnesota two or three times a year—I’d gladly come back and talk to students about, “Here, this is what you do, this is how you do it, this is how you make your way.” And that might lead me to want to give them $200 bucks every year, but there is no connection there. There’s no connection there, and I feel like that’s the case with a lot of colleges, particularly bigger, public ones.

Meredith: Yeah, my degrees are all in music and I’ve had a nice career, along with being in higher ed, I’ve had a nice career in music and I never get asked by my alma mater to come back and say, “Hey, how did you do that? You’re one of the few musicians that actually has made a living as a musician for a goodly part of your lie and your livelihood. How did that work out for you?” I agree. There’s…particularly in places like English and in music where there’s not a necessarily straight-ahead path to a job with a cubicle on day one after you graduate school and you kind of have to find your own way, that can be particularly useful for students, I think. To find someone that has actually done what it is they want to do where the pathway is a little bit circuitous and to talk with them for a little while.

Carlson: And the help that students need, even well into their 20s or well into their 30s even after they leave college…I wrote a column for (Chronicle colleague) Goldie (Blumenstyk) a few weeks back about a fellow that I had met who is working at a local grocery store here. And it was one of these…it was sort of a co-op kind of grocery store, organic foods and so on, and I would go there to buy the bulk beans or whatever I was doing, and I just happened to have a connection with this guy who was stocking the shelves because I would see him there every day. And we got to talking and he would ask me about what I do. “What do you do for a living? Oh, you travel. How do you get to travel all the time?” “Oh, I do this for a living.” “How did you get into that?” You know, he would ask me all of these questions and so, we arranged to get together for a beer and talk about how I got into the job that I got into. And when I was going to take him out for the beer, I thought…well, I had assumptions about who this kid was, what he was all about. You know, he stocks the shelves at the grocery store. I figured, “Maybe he doesn’t have a college degree. Maybe he didn’t go all that well in high school. Maybe he’s sort of wandered around.” Well, I came to find that he had graduated from Wake Forest University with a degree in history, actually did quite well in high school, he graduated without debt and in graduating from Wake Forest University, he graduated from this place that has been featured in the New York Times and other places for having this robust career service center under Andy Chan and yet, here he was, stocking the shelves at the grocery store. And I’ve met so many students like that who got out of college—had sort of blindly majored in something that they thought they loved or at least they found somewhat interesting—and then sort of left school, they walked across the stage, took the degree, the diploma, left school and then didn’t really have any sense of how to apply that. What to do with that in the world. This is a huge, huge issue. It’s a problem for higher education, it’s an anxiety for families and it’s a real source of depression and shame, I feel, for the students who are trapped in that situation. This is a kid who works at a grocery store. I’ve met young guys with $70,000 in debt and…a political science major working at a bar. I’ve met a woman who graduated from a Christian university in Minneapolis who also worked at a bar, had $90,000 in debt. And the kind of shrug and bitterness that they have about their lives is a real issue and it’s one of the questions…it’s one of the reasons why we have people like Peter Thiel and others sort of questioning the value of higher education. They shouldn’t question the value of higher education, but because we’re not completing that circle because we’re not sort of sending folks out and allowing them to capitalize on previous success or helping them capitalize on that previous success, we’re sort of undermining the enterprise as a whole.

Wyatt: Part of our problem is that students come to colleges and universities—this is a generalization of course—but so many of them come and choose a major. What they should do is come and choose a career and then pick a major that would feed that career.

Carlson: Yes.

Wyatt: And have a really good objective view of that career. You know, that…you can major in history, but you’re probably not going to be a historian, so what is it that you want to do and how can we help you figure out how a history major will lead you to that and understand the challenges and rewards connected.

Carlson: Well, I said, “Yes” but I wonder about picking the career first. I think you should pursue…particularly for college and for education, you should pursue what you think is going to excite you. With a thing like a history major, there’s a bunch of stuff you could do with that. And your course of study doesn’t have to determine what your career is going to be. I mean, you can shift and move around that a little bit. One of the problems we have though—and this is going back to the K-12 problem—is that we’re so busy shoving facts down the throats of students and having them sit through these standardized tests and do a bunch of bologna during the day that there isn’t really a whole lot of exploration or time for exploration for these 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18 year olds to have exposure to, “What is it exactly that a finance guy does?”

Wyatt: That’s right.

Carlson: “What is it exactly that an engineer does? What do they actually work on?” We have a sense of…there are some careers that are pretty obvious on their face and we encounter them in everyday life, but there are other careers that you never would know even exist and there’s no one telling the students that these things exist. That is…

Wyatt: Yeah, well…

Carlson: That needs to be more robust.

Wyatt: So, Steve is the lead accreditation liaison here at Southern Utah University and he’s a musician. And I’m the President and I was a philosophy major.

Meredith: And an attorney.

Wyatt: And an attorney. But, I didn’t major in philosophy because I wanted to be a philosopher. I majored in philosophy because I wanted to learn how to read and think and write and it just seemed really interesting to me. So, I had that as a major, but I had a career idea. I’m not doing exactly what I intended, but I find so many people that just choose a major and then think that something is going to appear. And it might.

Meredith: Yeah, it might.

Wyatt: But…

Meredith: It might not.

Wyatt: But it might not.

Carlson: It might not. It’s a tough…it really is a tough path and so much of it is embedded in, “What’s your previous privilege?” To what extent do you extended networks—usually through your family—to what extent can those extended networks connect you with different kinds of careers or give you a bump up or help you sort of figure your life out? Or provide the kind of financial foundation that you need to sort of explore for a bit? Some students have more of that at their disposal. Many students have less.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Carlson: We’re kind of in a situation where if you’re a student in the lower quartile, the lowest quartile income-wise in the United States, the chances that you’ll…if you’re a kid in that quartile, the chances that you’ll get out of that quartile in the rest of your life are very slim. If you’re in the highest quartile, the chances that you will drop out of that quartile are very slim, you’ll likely stay rich. For all the kinds in the middle class, you basically have a 50/50 chance of making more or less than your parents. So, for them it’s a really…it can seem like a very pressured and very dicey sort of situation. Not that income is everything, but for a lot of these students, it can provide…it’s kind of one way of measuring your success apart from sort of the other markers.

Wyatt: Yeah. We were talking a few minutes ago about some of these really small colleges that might be nervous about their future. A couple of us visited several of the regional universities in Illinois and there was fear in the eyes of the administrators we talked to. They seemed to be really worried about their future as an institution. So many of the…that whole region, it’s just become extremely competitive. The number high school graduates is going down.

Carlson: Yeah, well…

Meredith: Yeah, the demographics are not in their favor for sure.

Wyatt: What would you do?

Carlson: Well…

Wyatt: What would you do?

Carlson: Illinois is a special case because the state is so screwed up. [All laugh]

Meredith: With apologies to our listeners in Illinois. [All laugh]

Carlson: No, they know it. They know it. But one of my colleagues just had dinner with someone who worked at one of the colleges and Illinois and at the dinner, she said, “Yeah, I spent a number of years working for the state government in Illinois” and my friend sort of quipped at the dinner and said, “Well, I’m surprised you’re not in prison.” [All laugh] No, Illinois…I did some work at Southern Illinois University some years ago when Glenn Poshard was the president there and Illinois had basically stopped expensing money to the state universities and there was discussion of them having to borrow money even just to make payroll. It’s a really screwed up situation and the deferred maintenance at some of these colleges like Illinois State University in southern Illinois would just blow you away. Really, buildings that were absolutely rotting. But those are state universities, and so, at some level there is a commitment from some of these states to keep those state universities going and partly because those state universities are an economic engine in these small towns that they’re in.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Carlson: There’s nothing else. For the private colleges, it’s a dicey situation because there’s no state to sort of back them up. Their sort of on their own to some extent. On top of the demographic pressures, then there’s also situations like what you find in New York state where New York state just announced the Excelsior Scholarship where anyone with a $100,000 family income or less can go to college for free, there’s more of these sort of free college plans that are coming up, well, that decimates the enrollment for a lot of these small, private colleges that would normally attract students that wouldn’t be going to the state university but now the families are looking at the state universities saying, “Well, this is free, so let’s just go there.” It also then decimates the enrollment at state universities in neighboring states like Pennsylvania. So, last year, I talked about some of the institutions in the Penn State system that were having trouble attracting students because there were a number of students that were going to New York universities for free. So, it’s a tough situation.

Wyatt: We’ve talked about some of the innovations you’ve seen…we’re kind of a mid-level sized, regional public university, 11,000 students in sort of a rural community in Southern Utah and we’ve seen substantial growth and some really exciting things like that, but if you think of all of the kind of mid-sized, regional universities around in the country, what are the innovations that you’ve seen in addition to what we’ve talked about? In addition to what we’ve talked about. Anything in particular that you…

Meredith: Or even if it’s not particularly innovative but unusual?

Wyatt: Or allows for innovation.

Meredith: Yeah.

Carlson: Hmm. You’re catching me off guard here. I would say you think about a place like VCU, Virginia Commonwealth…

Wyatt: Right.

Carlson: Which is run by Michael Rao.

Wyatt: Uh-huh.

Carlson: and Rao before that had been at Central Michigan University and VCU has been growing in a pretty robust way and part of what they’ve been doing has been to have this connection between the university, Virginia Commonwealth ,and the city of Richmond. So that…there’s an interesting play there in the sense that—and this is what my next report for The Chronicle is going to be all about—this interaction that happens between these universities, whether they’re large or mid-sized or small and the communities around them and how the partnerships between these places can start to pump up . . .  how they can start to lift each other up.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Carlson: In the sense of a kind of synergy.

Wyatt: So, looking in your community and finding ways to partner…?

Carlson: Sorry, what was that? Repeat the question?

Wyatt: Yeah, so what you’re describing is that the university and the community find ways to really connect broadly through the community and that would include, as you mentioned, the alumni and jobs and other kinds of things.

Carlson: Well, and in meaningful ways. In meaningful ways. I think of something like the sustainable cities initiative which comes out of the University of Oregon. That was started by these three professors in the Architecture and Urban Planning Department there and what they were doing there was…what happened there was these three fellows are just sort of sitting around at the end of the semester and they were talking about the students that they had in their class that semester and the students who had turned in these ideas based on these hypothetical projects and there were some brilliant ideas embedded in some of these papers, some of these final projects that they were doing, and…in most cases though, the students didn’t care if they ever got those papers back. You know, they got the grade and then the paper was thrown in the trash and the students walked away happy. “I got an ‘A’ and I’m done.” What they decided to do was to work with other faculty members on campus to try to create this SCI, this Sustainable Cities Initiative, where they would harness the work that students were doing in a range of classes—it could have been urban planning and architecture, it could be journalism, it could be political science, it could be marketing and communications—and then they would partner with one city each year in Oregon, usually a small city, and then unleash the students in these…in this sort of measured way over the course of the year on the problems of this particular city. So, for example, you might have a city that has a waste problem, it has problems with traffic management, it’s got signage problems, it’s got economic development problems…students would attack these problems in a course over time and present their ideas. The city would end up paying the university about $200,000 or $300,000 dollars for this service, for the year-long contract, and they got that money by plucking little bits of money out of each of the departments within the city government. So, for example, waste management would have $10,000 laying around, parks and rec would have $20K that they would contribute and so on and so forth. In the end, for $200,000 to $300,000 dollars, the city got millions and millions of dollars’ worth of profession—semi-professional—these students were…some of these were graduate students, some of these were undergraduate students, but, semi-professional advice that was really unbiased. It wasn’t like hiring a consultant. It was, “You’re hiring these students that have come up with radical ideas.” Consultants, as you know, they kind of…the old saying about consultants, “They look at your watch to tell you what time it is.” The students would come up with ideas that were really, really out there and really, really different. That was beneficial in two ways. One way, you’re getting ideas that no consultant is going to give you and it’s the latest thing coming out of academe.

Wyatt: That’s right.

Carlson: On one hand. On the other hand,…

Wyatt: Because they’re more creative.

Carlson: And more creative, more creative. On the other hand, it provided a kind of safety distance for the city because the city could take these ideas, present them at a public meeting, you know, a sort of poster session, and then if the citizens came back and said, “You want to do this with the waste management plant on the edge of town? Are you kidding me? That’s crazy. We’re never going to do that.” [All laugh] And then the city could distance themselves, saying, “Actually, this…”

Meredith: “It’s just a bunch of kids.”

Carlson: “…We’re working with students and it’s not a big deal, we’re not taking this very seriously. Don’t worry about it.” Btu what happened more often was that they would…these students would present these radical ideas and the citizens would come, see these ideas, and they’d say, “Yeah, that’s what we wanted you to do all along. This is what we’ve been thinking about. This is great.” And then the city folks are heroes and the students get a great education out of it. I mean, the students who participated in this said this was the most valuable education they’ve ever gotten in their time at Oregon. And I remember, in particular, what one young design student told me. In her class, she had been assigned to re-design the signage. She and the rest of her students had been assigned to redesign the city signage for the city Springfield and they’d come up with a bunch of really different ideas and during one of their critique sessions, they had the city engineers come down and talk with them about their ideas, and one of the city engineers said, “I really like what you’re doing with your sign here but how would we bolt that to the stake in the ground? Where’s the bolt hole?” And she said, “All the time I’ve been in college,”—she’d been in college three years up to that point—she said, “No one has really asked me anything practical like that.” [All laugh] “How would I bolt this to the sign?” And that’s…she said she found it tremendously valuable and validating. So, there’s tremendous opportunity out there if colleges would just sort of get out of their space a little bit and think a little bit more broadly and develop these partnerships.

Wyatt: This has been interesting, and it’s been helpful for us to read what you’re writing in The Chronicle and get all these different ideas. It’s a constant source for us of creative ideas.

Carlson: Great, thank you very much.

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 our guest, over the phone today, Scott Carlson, a senior writer for The Chronicle for Higher Education. Thanks to Scott for joining us and thanks to you, our listeners, for listening to us. We’ll be back again soon. Bye bye.