This morning I noticed the shift in the light. It happens to me at this time every year. I see the sun’s rays creeping over the tops of the trees as I drink my morning coffee and I take heart. Yes, it is only mid-winter but the days are growing longer. And even though I very much enjoy the hunkering down that the dark days of winter require (I embrace the couch by the fireplace); I confess that a little more daylight lightens my step. Just a hint of the sunny days ahead brings out my optimistic nature. It is with this sense of optimism that I am thinking about higher education this week.
Here in the Northeastern United States, we are in what some have called a “demographic winter.” Simply stated, there is a forecast for a long-term drop in high school graduates. Lower birthrates and new migration patterns have left us a little stunned by the declining number of students available to recruit to our colleges and universities. Elite colleges are fine. So are the well-known colleges in destination cities (Boston, New York), but the rest of us are left to figure out what to do next. After decades of growth, and budget practices based on ever-increasing enrollments, we are facing new realities.
This is hard. We are making cuts in our budgets and new programs are facing heightened scrutiny about their viability. Where we once might have assessed the value of a new major based on the ideas it would explore, we are now thinking about how it will serve our recruiting efforts. Reflecting on the quality of ideas has not disappeared, of course. Our nature and our review processes always focus on quality. Nevertheless, in our efforts to be financially sustainable, potential enrollments have become a critical part of how we evaluate the feasibility of a new degree. This shift, which seems obvious to the for-profit world, has shaken public higher education to its core.
Nevertheless, I see light ahead and here is why: When we discuss finding new audiences for our university, we do not focus on marketing– we focus on student engagement. Where we were once satisfied with the notion that emerging questions in a discipline were sufficient justification for launching a new degree, we now consider barriers to student engagement with those questions. Our curricular design processes are keeping those barriers in mind.
For example, we know that there are many great careers related to “big data.” We also know that our students avoid math like the plague. Instead of launching a big data degree, we are weaving data analytics into some of our not so obviously math-related majors. This helps us avoid the hazards of the stand-alone data analytics degree, which would likely have low enrollment numbers at our university. By building the data analysis tools into existing degrees, and thinking about how to support students in learning how to use those tools in the context of their major, we are avoiding the typical breakdown of math and non-math students. We are also increasing the value of the degrees we offer by responding to current trends in multiple disciplines. We hope that the value we have added to multiple majors will become part of our recruiting strategy.
Retention, rather than new degrees, is also an important strategy for a financially sustainable university. Higher retention is better for students, reputation, and the bottom line. At WCSU, we know that building community is critical to student retention. Yet, as a majority commuter campus, we have struggled with strategies for doing just that. There were hints, however, in several of our programs. Music majors have a weekly Convocation that brings them all together. Nursing students develop robust study groups to support each other. Theatre students must all contribute to staging productions. These activities are typical for these kinds of degrees. What can the rest of our degrees learn from them? Lots.
For example, who says convocation is just for music? My Biology Department decided to use their First Year Navigation course as a community building strategy as well. They opted to bring all of their first year students together in a large group each week (rather than the more typical 25 student classes). In this structure, students meet the biology faculty, hear about the opportunities of the discipline, relevant clubs and projects, and are encouraged to attend events important to their department. They also stage a faculty talent show, which is lots of fun. This community-building focus makes us better at meeting the needs of commuter and non-commuter students alike.
Faculty members are also experimenting with pedagogies. In history and social sciences, several faculty have been using a reacting to the past model as a first year course. Students take on roles of people in a particular era, learning to research characters and debate critical political issues. This is fun, in itself, but the best part is the collaboration is leading to a new course that focuses on a locally important historical event, which may be even more engaging for our students. It has certainly been engaging for the faculty involved. Others have been trying out flipped classrooms, exploring virtual reality, employing good practices associated with mindset research, and trying out universal design. It is exciting to see so many people really thinking about how to reach the students we are serving. This climate of innovation and passion creates an attractive teaching and learning environment–perhaps one that more students will want to experience.
These examples of the work we are doing at WCSU tell me that we are going to be okay. We are not waiting for something to happen; we are getting better. Here is the thing about this numbers conundrum: there are fewer high school students in total number, but there is also a heightened need for college education. As I do the math, this means we need to set the stage for a higher proportion of those high school graduates to attend college. To do so is to focus on engagement so we can better serve those graduating seniors, many of whom may require us to examine our assumptions about good learning environments. That is exactly what we have been doing.
We are still going to be working with less. We are going to have to rethink how we develop our budgets for the enrollments we have, and not count on growth. That will present a challenge, and there will be hard decisions to make. But if we keep leaning into innovation and engagement, I feel confident that we will figure it out. It’s not all sunshine yet, but I can see the rays peeking in.