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EAB’s Sally Amoruso interviews Nathan D. Grawe about his new book, “The Agile College,” that examines ways college are adapting to survive in response to the challenges Dr. Grawe wrote about in his acclaimed 2018 book, “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education.”
This virtual book discussion, recorded in January, was originally intended to give EAB employees fresh insights into enrollment, retention, and broader higher education strategy shifts that Grawe believes are having the greatest impact. With Dr. Grawe’s blessing, we have repurposed that recording into this special, one-hour episode of “Office Hours with EAB.”
In addition to discussing his new book, Dr. Grawe touches on potential impacts from things like urban dedensification, new equity initiatives, the rise of alternative credentials, and policy changes we might expect from the Biden administration.
Dr. Grawe also shares how the pandemic has helped break down resistance to change across higher education, enabling many institutions to begin slaying sacred cows, streamline or eliminate administrative hurdles that degrade the student experience, and refocus on their true mission.
0:00:12.1 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today’s episode was recorded in January during a virtual book discussion organized for EAB employees and featuring noted author Nathan D. Grawe. Dr. Grawe is probably best known for his 2018 book, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. A book that forced a lot of admissions leaders to sit up and take notice of the looming demographic shift that will leave colleges competing for a rapidly shrinking population of 18-year-old high school graduates by the mid-2020s. In this special one-hour episode, Dr. Grawe talks about his new book, The Agile College, that examines ways colleges are adapting to survive amidst threats, demographic and otherwise. Thanks again for listening and enjoy.
0:01:05.7 Sally Amoruso: I am delighted. Delighted this morning to have Dr. Nathan Grawe with us to discuss his new book, The Agile College, hot off the presses. Welcome Nathan.
0:01:17.3 Dr. Nathan D. Grawe: Thank you so much.
0:01:18.9 SA: Let me just provide a brief introduction for those of you who are less familiar with Dr. Grawe’s work. He is the Ada M. Harrison Distinguished Teaching Professor of the Social Sciences at Carleton College, where he served on the faculty since ’99. He earned his bachelor’s from St. Olaf College and his master’s and PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. His work as a labor economist studies the connections between family background and educational and labor market outcomes, and his 2018 book Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education was what I would call a blockbuster for higher ed, and I think I personally gave out at least 50 copies to presidents that I work with, and I know many of you have, as I do, a dog-eared highlighted copy next to your bed. In a follow-up project, The Agile College, which we’re gonna discuss today, Nathan draws on interviews from higher ed leaders to provide examples of how proactive institutions are grappling with demographic change. Nathan, I’d love to start by understanding what prompted you or what made you feel like you needed to do a refresh here, so soon after that first blockbuster book?
0:02:40.1 DG: The second book starts with an updating of the forecasts and there’s some value in asking, “Hey, can we push a little further into the 2030s?” Because obviously, we’re now getting very close to that time period where we do see the demographic fertility impacts in the present, and then we wanna know, okay, what happens next? But I think mostly the motivation came from the two thirds of the book that follows, that has to do with how institutions are responding. I was talking to people like EAB folks and college administrators all over the country about how they were adapting, and I think the good news is my exercise… My project is really a projection exercise, it’s an ‘if-then’ the exercise.
0:03:19.0 DG: If people continue doing what we’ve been doing, both on the higher ed side and also on the side of families, what happens next? In some sense, that shouldn’t be a terribly interesting exercise in the sense that we should not anticipate that people will just do the same things, in fact, we should hope that they wouldn’t… It gives you a little bit of a wake-up call to see that the demographics are shifting in ways that will change the size of the pools and the composition of the pools, but then what do you wanna do about it? And I think I saw a news story a couple of years ago on the East Coast, where someone was quoted as saying, in the mid-2020s, “We’re starting to call that change the Apocalypse,” and I thought, wow, that’s a really, really unhelpful analogy. And in fact it was Ed, Ed Bennett had a blog post where he provided a very different analogy, he pointed to Taleb’s work on antifragility.
0:04:08.1 SA: That’s right.
0:04:09.0 DG: Where stress can be, it can be breaking. Systems can break under stress, but some systems like our bodies, he pointed out in the context of a workout, get stronger under stress, and he simply asked, is it possible that higher ed is or can be and antifragile system? And what I’m seeing across the country is good evidence that the answer may well be yes, that institutions are adapting, and those institutions that are willing to in essence take on that second analogy have a much, much better chance to navigate this time, which is gonna be a challenging time, I don’t want to be a Pollyanna, but on the other hand, we do have a lot to say about how our futures work, do we want to open our minds to a different definition of who our students are, do we want to reconsider which retention initiatives are just, “Oh too expensive, we couldn’t possibly do that,” versus, “No, these are essential to our financial viability.” And so the project is in essence an effort to collect stories to begin conversations.
0:05:06.6 DG: Every campus has its own context, there’s no off-the-shelf program, as you all know so well that you can just say, “Oh, here institution X did this, you do the same thing.” But hopefully, by throwing all these examples on the table, we can start conversations on campuses about, okay, which of these things may with some tweaking, fit your context and how is it best for you to go forward rather than saying, “It’s the apocalypse,” in which case, we should all just go home, be with family members, and there’s nothing to do through the apocalypse… That’s just not a very…
0:05:33.7 SA: I’m under the table, or going to be.
0:05:35.2 DG: Exactly.
0:05:36.2 SA: That’s right, and I think your first book was absolutely activating, but there was a sense that this was happening to us rather than what agency do we have and what strategies do we need to be taking? So I’m thrilled that you have written The Agile College. Ed and I have talked about that antifragile concept a lot, and I don’t think individual institutions are necessarily antifragile, but I do think as a system… Higher ed can be antifragile. So we will see some institutions go away, I think there is over-supply in the system, but as a system, it could be better and it could actually serve students more effectively, so that’s the…
0:06:24.7 DG: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting observation. I think some institutions, I would argue, could be antifragile and others… Barbara Brittingham, the now departed president of… Is it NECHE? The accreditation agency up East.
0:06:39.1 SA: Yes. Yeah.
0:06:39.2 DG: Who’s seen up close and personal what this looks like.
0:06:42.4 SA: Yes.
0:06:43.5 DG: I was talking to her and I shared Ed’s analogy and I said, “What do you make of that?” And she said, “Well, you know, in a car accident, the stresses are just too much. And there’s a limit to this antifragility concept.” And I think that’s what you’re talking about. I think if we think about the car accident though, all of the engineering of the car is to take that stress and spread it out over time. Now, if you have a bad enough accident, there’s nothing you can do, but for those institutions that are kind of on the edge, I think we could hope that they will adapt, change retention practices and become stronger versions of themselves more true to their missions, and yet you’re right, that there are gonna be others where you say, “Okay, look, we need to be talking about mergers or what’s the best way forward that might be a radical departure from the past?”
0:07:25.6 SA: That’s right. And I wanna come back to that because I wanna touch on some of the advice that you have for our partner institutions, but let’s start with just the basics, what changed in your projections since 2018 and what has remained the same? What I could see is that most of it is pretty consistent, so your projections…
0:07:45.2 DG: That’s right.
0:07:45.3 SA: From 2018 were pretty darn solid. But there were a couple of changes. Right?
0:07:50.3 DG: Yeah, so one of the most important things I think is, if you look at the original projections for 2029, which was unfortunately the last year of the data, there seems to be something in the head count in the American Community Survey that’s making the original projections more pessimistic than I’m now looking at. Now you continue to go down. So I’m not sure that that gives us a ton of relief, but it gives us some relief, particularly if we look out West and in the South. We continue to see that in the Northeast, and the Midwest, it’s just tough, there’s no way around it. They’re already in tough, frankly, in many regional areas, some of the things that I did do in the follow-up because I had questions from people about, well, what about this subgroup or that subgroup, was to divide the data. So for instance, while I can’t differentiate by institution rank, and I can say, well, what about the publics versus the privates, and to be honest, it doesn’t seem… And I’m not surprised, it doesn’t seem like these are different paths ahead, these are two ships on the same sea, so as the tide rises and falls they rise and fall together.
0:08:52.8 DG: There does seem to be, when I break out the subset of students who are transfer students versus the more persistent ones, if you look at the composition of the two-year market and the four-year market, the two-year market, both markets are kind of weaker but then if you had to focus on kids who are persistent versus transfers, the two-year group seems to be growing in the transfer student, which is… I guess we’re happy that there’s anything… It’s falling less is a better way to say that, it’s better to have strength than weakness, I guess, but if your relative strength is in the group that is less persistent, obviously that raises some additional challenges, whereas with the four-year colleges it’s the reverse, which might take a little of the edge off. Okay, we’re seeing a decline in the pool, but it’s relatively a little… The decline is a little less severe in the repeat student, the persistent student who comes back and pays tuition term after term, so those kinds of things also take the edge off, so I would say my work is not inconsistent with what we saw with WICHE’s update that, okay, things look a little bit better than we thought.
0:09:51.5 SA: A little better, right.
0:09:52.9 DG: But you still have to try to avoid the second half of the 2020s, that pool is shrinking pretty pretty low.
0:09:58.1 SA: And the decline continues, now that you’ve projected even beyond 2029, it’s going to continue.
0:10:03.2 DG: Exactly. My forecasts see a bigger bump in the early 2030s… In 2013-14, we had a bump in births, very small, my bump looks bigger than the CDC’s bump in births, and bigger than the WICHE forecast and so frankly, if I had to put my bet on my bump, or WICHE’s bump, I’d put it on WICHE’s just because I’m having a hard time understanding quite why we should be that hopeful, but there is a little bit of a reprieve. But very, very brief in the early 2030s, and then we continue with the declining fertility.
0:10:34.6 SA: Got it. And from what I could gather there is also by segment, some slightly better news for the elites in the two years is that…
0:10:46.4 DG: Yeah, so slightly better. That’s right, in the two-year sector, you’re going from a pretty tough story to, still a pretty tough story, so that relief… Every little helps, I guess. Then with the elite sector, what we saw when we only looked through the end of the 2020s was, okay, and then there’s a climb, and if we push out further what we see is, okay, but that updraft of… It’s primarily driven by parents who have a college degree, eventually picks up again, and so we see the reversal and then as they come out of it, they end up by the end of my forecast, which goes to the middle of the 2030s, you see, okay, so they seem to have recovered from their losses. So at the top end, yes, we continue to see if people continue to do as they have in the past, which is a great, a big if that there is some reason for greater hope at the top end.
0:11:39.5 SA: Right. And you started this work before COVID hit, so…
0:11:44.0 DG: That’s right.
0:11:44.8 SA: I wanna talk about how that lens may have impacted some of how you would be prognosticating on this now, and I loved Robert Zemsky’s quote in the front of your book about how he envies your demographic dexterity, so we’re gonna test that and just think about some of the ways that COVID has changed the landscape, and one of them is just that as we’ve been telling our partners, it’s accelerated a lot of the pressures that you had already projected in 2018, and in particular those budgetary gaps that they were feeling across the fall have activated them around certain steps that they maybe thought they had until 2023 or ’24 to start. One of them being academic program prioritization. And so you have a lot of schools right now looking at their program offerings, cutting programs, trying to reduce even tenured faculty ranks, and I’d love to hear how you think this may help or hurt their futures, and is that the right thing to be doing at this point?
0:12:56.9 DG: Yeah, so I would say… Just stepping back a little bit, how does COVID impact my work? At some level, it breaks it, here we’ve got this if-then proposition, if is predicated on patterns that we saw in 2013, of the traditionalized college going continuing and obviously in this last year, we saw an enormous break of that. That raises questions about what happens next, and we can talk about that in more detail in a bit, but the bottom line is, okay, this is outside of the model. Insofar as what’s inside the model, work by Melissa Kearney and Phil Levine over at Brookings have looked at what do they think might happen to fertility in 2020, and they’re saying it might cost us another 300 to 500,000 babies. So okay. In the mid-2030s. Gosh, another reckoning coming our way.
0:13:42.3 SA: Wow, interesting.
0:13:43.5 DG: Yeah, but if we step back and say, okay, so I think your observation is right, that we are looking at scarcity and we’re trying to grapple with it. There just aren’t as many students who are willing and able to come to our campuses right now. In the short run, that’s forced us to think about things like student success, student-centered advising, student-centered retention initiatives, and those are exactly the same kinds of things that I think have the greatest promise in the longer run, and so I’m kind of hoping that we can leverage this experience. Faculty are doing Zoom office hours like I am with you. It looks like you might be in your home and it looks like a relatively calm, sensible place to work, but some of our experiences on Zoom office hours have seen our students in very different contexts.
0:14:26.6 SA: Absolutely.
0:14:27.2 DG: And I think it opens back the eyes, I think faculty members, because of what we do for a living tend to focus on the academic development, and so when we see a student struggling, our first thought is, “Well, maybe we should develop a quantitative skill set.” And maybe we should, but retention is so much bigger than that. Students bring their whole selves to our campuses, and faculty got a little glimpse into what the whole self means and how different levels of resource support, you see a student who’s sharing a bedroom with a sibling and it’s a chaotic environment at home. And I know that when we bring them to our campuses, for those of us who are residential, one of the things we do is bring them out of that environment, but we don’t…
0:15:03.5 DG: We can’t bring them out of all the pressures that come from an under-resourced background, and just recognizing the holistic nature of advising may help faculty be better partners in the Enrollment Management work that has to be done over the next 10 years to maybe rethink… If my thought is always that, look, they have to stay… They have to come up and meet me at my levels of standard academically, and that’s the problem, they’re not meeting my standards, that’s not a very productive beginning to a conversation. If instead we say, “These are our students, these are the strengths and the weaknesses they bring to our campus, now, how do we have to adapt so that they can learn and succeed?” That opens up some conversations, and I’m really hoping that this experience of the last year will break free some of those… The false constraints on that conversation and allow the conversation to open up in a productive way.
0:15:53.4 SA: Well, you’re speaking our language right now in terms of student success and the approach that faculty need to bring to it, and what I’m hearing is that there was a silver lining in this COVID environment that opened up faculty eyes to that. For some segments of higher ed, I think it will have very little impact because I think attitudes are pretty entrenched, but for others, I do think that it was a pretty remarkable opening of the eyes and understanding, that maybe it’s not all the student’s fault, that their readiness to perform wasn’t completely within their control.
0:16:31.4 DG: Yeah, and the other caveat I would say is, I think there’s potential here, but that’s far from enough. Okay, so you open faculty eyes. People are also fatigued. I had somebody write me recently and comment on something they’ve read of mine and say, “Look, you’re being way too optimistic. Sure in the context of COVID faculty have… Institutions have a gun to their head. Of course, they’re gonna be open to change, but when we’re thinking about things that move a little bit more slowly, like demographic change, people are gonna go back to their entrenched resistant mindset.” And that may be true, it certainly will be true if we don’t do some serious work to capitalize on this experience of the last year. I don’t think the experience of the last year by itself, all of a sudden makes faculty easy partners in the enrollment management conversation. We still have work to do, but I think it does give us a little of the…
0:17:22.4 SA: Sensitize them. Yeah.
0:17:23.5 DG: Exactly. We have an open door. Now, we have to walk through it, we have to take advantage of it. It’s not gonna just happen without work.
0:17:30.2 SA: And I wanna come back to that in the context of shared governance, which I think is an opportunity, but also can be an obstacle for institutions that want to institute dramatic change. Your projections are based on the past as precedent and past behaviors and past pre-disposition of certain ethnic groups to attach to certain segments of education to basically project forward. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot is this budget, the budget impact, not just on colleges, but on the nation overall, and whether that starts to change some of those predispositions, like do Asians suddenly not focus so much on the elites? Perhaps they will continue to focus on them, but perhaps they will broaden the aperture in terms of the consideration set, and so is this an opportunity for more value-based offerings at regionals, at nationals to start to gain ascendancy because of the financial fragility of families across the country? What are your thoughts on that?
0:18:45.0 DG: Yeah, I tend to agree that this is a moment of a potential, potential for a lot of… I think the results of what we’ve had as sort of an educational experiment for the last year are probably not gonna be that everybody thinks the same thing as a conclusion. So when I think about all these high schoolers doing distance learning as someone who works at a residential liberal arts art college and I think that’s a wonderful model for many students, I hope some of the students will say, “Wow, I really took for granted the power of a personal instructional environment.” And I think there might be some of that, but while they might be thinking that, we’re still gonna have to make a case. And again, it’s an open door, but we have to walk through it.
0:19:20.8 DG: On the other hand, we’re gonna have other students who experience online learning and say, “You know, I never would have thought that this was for me, but it’s actually not that bad. And it actually allows me to do some other things with my life.” And so there will be openings for institutions in that direction as well, and along so many dimensions. We’re in a moment of flux, so I think it does offer, because of the income effects of all of this, the chance that there might be… In essence, we have all been invited very brutally, to re-envision what education looks like. And once you open that up, I think you could get a lot of people thinking, “Okay, so what is the value of an elite education? Is it worth it? What are the costs and what are the benefits?”
0:20:02.7 DG: And I think we were already seeing those conversations taking place, and when we see the Varsity Blues scandal, it’s really a small number of schools, a small number of incidents. Yeah, it’s all very salacious and some celebrities were involved, so I understand why people would read it, like we read so much about celebrity, but it wasn’t just that people were fascinated, people were angry, and that the visceral nature of the response suggests to me that there’s an undercurrent a conversation going on, beneath the surface about the value of elite education, and people are questioning that. And so yeah, I do think there are, there’s… And this is… I think Carleton’s gonna be okay, but I’m… I wish it weren’t so, but I think some regionals will have an opening here to have those conversations that say, “Look, is it really worth it?” And from my perspective, what Carleton needs to do is better make the value proposition case. We can’t just say, “Well of course, they want us.” Well why of course? And right now a lot of people are asking a lot of questions, and I hope that we can give good answers, thinking we Carleton, but we all have to be giving better answers to those questions, I think there are opportunities for some realignment here.
0:21:11.9 SA: I agree, and I think one of the challenges is that that value proposition has been pretty undifferentiated for most liberal arts colleges and universities over the last decade. So good faculty/student ratios, a caring faculty, a beautiful bucolic campus, lots of residential life aspects that are appealing, but I don’t think that’s gonna be enough. And so when I was talking about the academic program prioritization earlier, one of the things that I am seeing is for the astute leaders that they are going back to the value proposition and are understanding what their students and their specific student population values, but also what they’re willing to pay for and what they can afford to pay for. And so what I… And I would love to get your thoughts on this. What I would think would happen if you look at other industries that have transformed under financial pressures is differentiation, so we’ve had a largely undifferentiated higher ed system, if this goes in the right way, institutions will start to differentiate around their student populations and their specific needs.
0:22:19.1 DG: Yeah, and I think when we were in this era where there were always more high school graduates each year, you could get kind of flabby on these kinds of questions. So I think about the case, that residential liberal arts colleges like mine make for the value of that education, it kind of boiled down to, “Well, you can have pizza with your professors.” And I had a colleague who went on tours with his daughter and was just shocked to see that that was always the answer, “Do you have good faculty student relationships?” “Yes, I just had pizza at my professor’s house.” And he said he heard that whether it was a flagship public or it was a private liberal arts college, which made him anxious because our answer, the private liberal arts college, was really weak. If that’s what we’re trying to differentiate on, and we are, we better have a better answer than that. So I think it will force us to be more deliberate about that, and it’s not just about the messaging, it is about making good on that, truly being differentiated. That’s and I think what we saw with Green Mountain underscores that, okay, it’s not just enough to be differentiated.
0:23:18.8 SA: It has to be something…
0:23:19.2 DG: They had a clear brand, but it ended up not being enough.
0:23:22.1 SA: That’s right. Students need to want it. They need to be willing to pay for it. And they need to be able to afford it, right? Yes, absolutely. One other aspect of the COVID pandemic that I wanted to explore, is this K-Shaped Recovery, and so you see students of color, you see minorities across the nation being hit the hardest, and with the workforce becoming more remote, even on an ongoing basis, those are the folks who actually don’t have as much opportunity to do telework. So you really see this being exacerbated in the minority populations that are in your projections going to be a greater proportion of our students, how do you see that flowing through that financial fragility in the growing populations that we serve, and how should colleges and universities think about that?
0:24:21.6 DG: Yeah, well I think you’re absolutely right that we should be worried. In part because of the data we’ve already seen, the National Clearinghouse data, that suggested that low-income students were especially likely not to enroll.
0:24:33.2 SA: That’s right.
0:24:33.4 DG: What we saw in two-year colleges, all of these things speak to that issue that you’re talking about. It seems like there are a number of students who probably felt like they needed not to go to college, and why was that? It’s not because they were paying $75,000 a year in tuition, probably they’re contributing to the family’s financial picture. So going forward, I think we do have to worry about whether that is a short-term blip or is this the start of a new trend? I think you’re also right that it does raise challenges ’cause the growing pool that we’re looking at is not the pool that has extensively deep pockets. I’m cautiously optimistic that the other part of the K, the rising state of those who have college degrees means that we’ll have enough full-pay students to make the whole enterprise work, and in addition, I think depending on the state you’re in, the tuition assistance grants that states provide can still make low-income families well worth serving. So and I think in New Jersey, it’s $19,000. Well, okay. That’s worth going after. So I think it still works out, but that’s predicated on states and federal funding remaining strong, and of course, every recession we’ve seen for the last 20 or 30, it’s gone down, so, okay, will it continue to be possible to serve those populations and make it work financially? That’s a bit of a frightening question, in light of the deficits we’re seeing.
0:25:56.0 SA: That’s right. And the community colleges, which you mentioned, were sort of… The starkness of that decline this year was sort of a surprise because we’ve seen that segment actually be counter-cyclical to the economy, and yet they suffered a dramatic enrollment decline, and do you feel that that… I’d love for you to just sort of elaborate on what you think was behind that?
0:26:21.2 DG: Yeah, so I’ve got at least two thoughts and I’m curious to see how things play out. The one is the income story that it’s just okay contracting… But as you’ve pointed out, we’ve had contracting incomes in the past, and that’s not how it’s played out. The other reality is that two-year colleges… A number of two-year colleges specialize in programs where it’s more of a practicum experience and being in close physical proximity is absolutely essential. So at my institution right now, over 70% of our classes are online-only. It may be that students view that as… At the same time my son in high school took welding this term, welding online is not a particularly rich learning experience. So if you’re thinking about going to a two-year college to pursue a trade. Boy, this just doesn’t seem like a great time to do it, so this is a weird recession because it’s a pandemic recession. And so I’m wondering about these two stories, you’ve we’ve got the income effect, and then we’ve got the importance of social distance. And which of those two is the story and maybe there’s a third, I don’t know.
0:27:23.5 SA: And so I think on the income effect, there’s probably a counter-cyclicality until a certain chaos point where they just cannot afford education regardless, because to your point, they’re contributing to the family and they don’t have… They just don’t have the funds even for a very well-priced offering, but you’re right, I hadn’t thought about the fact that the nature of the education may not be conducive to online compared to perhaps some of the other segments. That’s interesting.
0:27:55.9 DG: I also wonder, those… Even if you take the more traditional classroom offerings at two-year colleges, they often serve students who are more marginally attached to higher ed, and so when you then say, “Oh, we’re gonna go online,” and there are all these other dis-amenities associated with doing… Maybe that’s just too much. I know I’ve heard from some of my kid’s friends that are in that marginal group that they just… The notion of going to college is really underwhelming to them right now, and I wonder how much of that is because the distance modality just adds enough of a disincentive that, “Okay, if I’m on the margin then I’m out.”
0:28:33.9 SA: Right, that’s right. One of your premises in terms of what drove the growth earlier was the earnings premium, right. So the fact that if you have a bachelor’s degree, that you are really earning significantly more than those who don’t, and yet I’m watching disruptors like Grow with Google and other non-degree-based credentials that may actually fill in that space between the BA and the no-BA and I’m wondering what you think about that and how that might impact the projections moving forward as well.
0:29:19.9 DG: And I think that’s a really interesting question because we have seen a movement toward corporate involvement in education. In that case, it’s a substitute. In other cases, we’ve seen corporate involvement where they go to a neighboring institution and say, “We want to build a program within your institution, tailored just for us.” I actually heard a story from a two-year college in Iowa where they’ve done exactly that, and from their perspective, it was very unfortunate because after they built this program for this institution, it was maybe five years in, they were talking about revamping the program to even better match the industry needs, and then the industry partner just hired the professor who was running the whole thing and said, “Why do we just bring it in in-house?”
0:29:58.0 SA: Bring it inside. Interesting.
0:30:00.1 DG: So the institution felt like, “Gosh, we just invested a lot of money and time into this program, and now we’ve not only got nothing… It’s worse than nothing. We’ve got a competitor.” So it is dicey. I am curious to see how the credentialing on the part of… It seems a little unfortunate to me, it seems like there really is something about teaching that is a craft, and maybe the industry isn’t recognizing that. Though in this case, they went and they hired somebody who knows that craft, and so maybe they can solve that. But I’ve heard from a number of higher ed leaders who are saying, “Look, we either have to figure out how to play nicely with corporate America and be the solution to their problem, they need high-skilled labor, they don’t necessarily need credentials, meaning our BA or our associate’s degree, they need people who can do the job, and if we can’t figure out a way to partner, then we will be competitors.” And so I think there is a real pressure to try to figure out how we can be the solution rather than be the competitor.
0:31:01.2 SA: It’s gonna be hard for higher ed to release the concept of the degree though, that is just so embedded in the psyche of higher ed. I think Grow with Google is interesting because it’s free, it is targeted at diversifying their workforce, and they have a consortium of employers who will recognize the credential and hire folks who successfully complete that. That’s pretty powerful. So if I were a higher ed leader on campus, I would be paying attention to these disruptors and thinking about our place in the ecosystem.
0:31:35.6 DG: We can also think of mimicking a little, so I was talking to Richard Wagner who’s the president of Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis, so very much a technical college, and they’re thinking about how do we revamp our programs to allow for that? So for instance, in CNC training, let’s put the course that the students really want, the credential, they’re gonna be doing on the front end. So that after one term, you can have the credential, so you can go and get the raise or get the new job. While at the same time that’s the entry point for one of several of their associate’s degree programs with the hope that, “Okay, now you’re gonna get the raise, that’s what you want, that’s what the industry wants, but now part-time, let’s continue pursuing the degree, which is sort of the more traditional product that we offer.” So I think if we can be flexible in re-envisioning what our product is so that we can in essence try to have our cake and eat it too. Offer the credentialing in the short term, we’re just gonna give you what you need and yet have that be an entryway to our traditional programs, that might be a way that’s more comfortable for us. Now I don’t know if that’s the right way, but it might be more comfortable for us.
0:32:36.4 SA: Yes and I think it also is much more conducive to serving a larger student population, including the adult learners who are gonna want that… It’s actually a practice that we profile as well, because adult learners are not gonna want to wait two years necessarily to get that promotion. I also wanna touch on urban de-densification because I’ve been starting to delve into this area of really investigating the future of work as catalyzed by COVID, and a lot of companies are going to remote first or to more flexible telework policies. And so one of the outcomes of that could be sort of flight from urban centers, which has been the opposite trend to the last decade, and if this happens, which I think it will, I’m not sure to what extent, certainly has an impact on industry that is derivative of that, that serves those corporate centers, but it could also have an impact on the different segments that you talked about. So perhaps an opportunity for more of the rural based, regional, privates or publics. What are your thoughts on that trend and how it might impact your projections?
0:33:51.3 DG: Yeah, so I think that’s a really fascinating area just as a labor economist. So we’ve got this literature on urban… Why do we have cities in economics? And the answer is usually it’s because bumping into other smart people creates some wonderful economies, and so I want to be near other smart people. Does Zoom solve that problem? I don’t yet know, I think we were anxious when we went to Zoom distance work, that people would just… I don’t know, watch cat videos and productivity would decline. And I think we’ve answered that question that no, people do… They are able to stay on task and when they aren’t commuting and so on, we actually have a potential for an efficiency gain, but does Zoom allow for the transmission of ideas that kind of lead cities to blossom?
0:34:37.1 DG: I think that one’s still to be seen, and then the other factors, I think there’s a great consumption value in cities, and boy don’t I know this in a small town, the lack of great restaurant options, the lack of great arts options. Now I’ve got two colleges in town, so we have some cultural amenities, but if you really want culture in Northfield, you have to drive to the Twin Cities which thankfully is just 45 minutes away, but if you wanna see the orchestra, if you wanna see the art gallery, if you want to go to the theater, you’re gonna have to travel for that, and so while you could imagine a world where we do have more remote work, and yet people still opt to live near the big city centers because they just like the amenities that come with consumption of those things.
0:35:20.0 DG: So I’m really curious, I’m kind of a small-town person myself, and I walked through New York City when we traveled… Back in the old days when we actually got on airplanes and I thought, “Why do people wanna live here? This is just so… So much concrete.” So it will be… Maybe people will, and some people will, I kind of… I’m gonna bet that cities are still gonna win out, because I think there’s still gonna be a benefit for at least occasionally rubbing literal shoulders, not just Zoom shoulders with other smart people, and I think there’s the amenities but I think it is an open question right now, and it’s fascinating.
0:35:54.8 SA: I think what we’re seeing, I recently moved to LA is that the cost of living in the cities versus sort of the arbitrage that you can create if you have the same salary and you’re living somewhere with a much lower cost of living, that is really a draw. So we’ve seen urban flight from LA to Reno or to Idaho or to Wyoming, where people can get three times the amount of house for half the price, and that’s pretty compelling even without the amenities.
0:36:25.2 DG: It is, but that’s predicated then on I can keep my wage up, which means I need the productivity, so can I through Zoom and then perhaps travel… I’m sure you get together with your colleagues infrequently during this pandemic, but it’s not that you never have moments where you’re face-to-face, and once the pandemic is done, I’m sure that the work plan would mostly remote and then with regular interactions, so can we maintain the high productivity that comes from cities, but now from a dispersed model? It’ll be curious to see. Obviously, yes, it does… I think the other part of the equation for higher ed is there’s where you live and then there’s where you study and I think we’ve seen a shift where it used to be viewed as sort of, “When I go to college… ” At least a significant subset wanted to, “Then I’m gonna be off in a sort of bucolic, rural setting for my college years, and then I’ll go back to the city to live.” And I think we’ve seen a little bit of a shift of preferences where it’s not clear to me that the rural setting is selling as well in the recent past.
0:37:30.0 DG: Now, I don’t know, maybe the pandemic will shift people’s affinity for urban settings, such that students, whether they live in cities or not, will find the rural settings like my own to be appealing, but I think certainly the pandemic offers lots of opportunities to disrupt these patterns and we’re getting a taste of it.
0:37:51.4 SA: And one other aspect of remote first for universities who maybe are embracing the online delivery, the online modality more because they have faculty who have become converts. I’ve had a couple of presidents say, “This really opens up the labor market for me because I can find the best accounting professor no matter where they live. And it doesn’t have to be in this town. And so my faculty may not realize this, but I now have access to a much broader labor pool than I did before.” And that will be interesting as well.
0:38:27.3 DG: Yeah, and on the positive side, so from a faculty member, I hear that and think, “Oh no, increased competition.” But on the positive side, it also means smaller institutions like Carleton, we have 2,000 students, who might identify a critical program, where we don’t have a critical lense maybe in Arabic, and in the past, we struggled with well, how could we partner with another institution to somehow pull off and create a position that you could actually fill? And if we’re thinking about in-person learning, which was our default way of thinking, that’s harder to answer, but if we move to online learning, all of a sudden well Carleton can partner with Williams or Amherst, whoever, it doesn’t matter where. And maybe we can now come up with more creative solutions to that, where we can actually create new positions that just weren’t feasible, that are really strategically important for the institution.
0:39:17.6 SA: And you… I am seeing consortia also pop up to address that, whether it’s online or in person, so this recognition that, “Gosh, this business model really doesn’t allow us to do everything we want to do, and we have to stop trying to be all things to all people.” So maybe through collaboration, particularly across liberal arts colleges. Equity, so for so many reasons, diversity and equity have been top of mind for our partners and for us, and a lot of our partners particularly… But actually not just highly selective colleges and universities, have embraced this as really front and center to their strategies, the under-representation of non-Hispanic Black students in particular, and have created programs to increase diversity of their student populations, but your projections actually indicate that the number and share of non-Hispanic Blacks will decline at all institutions, including elites, while Asians and Hispanics represent most of the growth. So what are your thoughts on how you would counsel these institutions?
0:40:36.8 DG: Yeah, so I’d start by going back and just reminding them, this is a projection based on past behaviors, it’s not what has to happen, it’s what we’re on the path for if we and they continue doing the same things. So we certainly have seen a decline in the number of African-American babies along with other types as well, and that’s part of this story, and I don’t know that higher ed can do anything about that. But when we think also about the college-going rates, we’ve seen since financial crisis, the college-going rates among high school graduates who are African-American have declined, and that’s really worrisome. I think we can look at the Hispanic sub-population and see some reason for hope that, hey, things don’t have to persist as they have, what had been an enormous gap turned into no gap at all in about 2016, a small gap has re-merged… I don’t know if that’s for real or not.
0:41:23.1 DG: But the basic story is Hispanics have closed the gap. And my first thought was, well, Hispanics, disproportionately attend two-year schools, is this just kind of like a surge of two-year attendance? And the answer is no, the surge is four-year attendance, particularly among publics, but also among privates, reminding us that what has been in the past does not have to be the same in the future, but, the big but is, what are we going to do differently in the future so that we get a different result? We can’t just do the same thing and say, “Let’s cross our fingers and I bet something new will result.” So I think we are gonna have to talk about how we identify students who are, “our students” or how we define who our students are. We were having conversations nationwide about going test-optional, of course, COVID has… I think it was about half of four-year institutions were test-optional before COVID and now it’s two-thirds.
0:42:08.1 DG: So we’re all getting a good taste of what does it look like when we force ourselves into maybe a more holistic view. At the same time the College Board is trying to… With its, I guess they call it landscape tool to allow you to, if you want to use test scores, to at least provide, using basic public data, some context around it, so that we can tell the difference between a student who scores a 1050 with all of the advantages of a very affluent community versus a student who scores a 1050 despite living in a high crime, low home ownership, low-income type environment. And so I think those are really laudable initiatives, the beta testers on the landscape tool reported that it did make a difference.
0:42:52.9 DG: So Florida State University for instance, they primarily used it with admission to a competitive Bridge program, this was in 2018, but they were so happy there that they then said, “Let’s look at this stack of marginal probably-nos and let’s re-look at the files of the students who have a lot of adversity.” And they found about 1,000, a little bit more than 1,000 additional admits, which led to 400 additional matriculations, and I think that’s stunning just because it reminds us that however you do your admissions, the bringing in the holistic element of admissions, they were reporting that they had initially thought that most of these students were probably nos, and then on reflection, when you bring in the context, they said, “No, these students really do have what it takes.” So how can we rethink what strength looks like? And it’s not just in the admissions side, is then also in the classroom, I have to rethink what I’m doing in the classroom, yes…
0:43:45.5 SA: Exactly.
0:43:46.2 DG: Reach new students, you bring in some new challenges, that’s true. So maybe I need to think how I fill in… They’re coming from different high schools that have different skill gaps, but it’s not just that, they also bring different strengths, how can… If I just keep teaching the same way, I don’t tap into those new assets in the classroom, so how can I change the way I teach so that what these students positively bring to the classroom really makes all that they can be? So I think we do have to… If we’re on autopilot, I guess my projections say on autopilot, it doesn’t go so well, if we’re worried about equity, then we’re gonna actually have to change, we have to break the pattern.
0:44:20.4 SA: I think that’s very astute and I hope faculty think about it in that way. I was speaking to the president of Hamline who harkened back to the first affirmative action sort of wave of students and said, “I don’t want this to be like that, because if we don’t set these students up to succeed… It’s not just about getting them in the door, if we don’t set them up to succeed, they will then be blamed and be the face of failure for that set of students. And that’s really a backlash that we need to avoid.” And the problem is K through 12, we’re looking at three million students missing from the public school system, disproportionately students of color. So it also forces us to re-conceive of what that concept of college readiness means, so perhaps that adversity adjustment is part of it, but it’s also how can we be ready for those students because they’re coming to us with very different levels of preparedness? At least from an academic standpoint.
0:45:27.3 DG: Exactly, and it’s really tricky because on one hand, okay, we need to have standards, whatever that means. But on the other hand, what is it we’re trying to do? I presume higher ed sits kind of in the middle, as you point out, a lot of these problems are in K-12 and I can’t solve those problems very directly, but K-12 is gonna do whatever it’s gonna do, and then we have workforce needs on the other end. And higher ed sits in the middle. And we can say, “Well, those students don’t have the skills that I’m willing to work with,” we can do that, but then, okay, then we become a clog in the pipeline. Or we can say, “Okay, now, where are you at?” And I can be disappointed with the answer, but I can still say, “Okay, I’ll engage with you where you are, and then my job is to take you to the next level.” I don’t quite know how to put those two… That we need standards on one hand, and we have to just… Okay, this is the world we live in, if students aren’t prepared for what they need to do with our current curriculum so that they can be skilled workers for the workforce needs that we have, then we do need to change our curriculum. And that it’s a balancing act, right? I still need to get them to the same output end, so that’s where the standards have to be held, but I need to be flexible about how we get them into the on-ramp to that higher degree that gets them to where they need to go.
0:46:40.4 SA: Yes, and that’s gonna require quite a bit of transformation in the thinking. For some institutions, especially, who see selectivity as a big part of their identity.
0:46:51.4 DG: Right, yeah. Another example of that, by the way, is Morningside College in Iowa, because they’re facing enrollment pressures. But let’s just be honest, a lot of this is motivated by what’s it gonna take for us to continue as an institution? And so they’re looking at students who they describe as in the past, students that they would have said, “No, we’re not interested,” and reconsidering, and they’ve created a program where they give conditional admittance. Those students then take a slate of classes that are pre-determined, and success in the fall term then gets you unconditional admittance in the spring term, and so it’s a highly structured remediation program in essence to help bring these students from, “No, we’re not interested,” to, “Yeah but we could… If we worked at it, we could get you up to speed.”
0:47:36.7 DG: Now during the fall, they don’t allow the students to participate in sports or other talent groups, the point is, “We’re gonna have to do some intensive work to close the gap, so that hopefully by your first year of spring term, you’re then kind of up to speed with where you need to be.” But it’s a way of re-envisioning, okay, so is the message to you, “Why don’t you go to some other institution? We don’t know which one, you figure it out, get yourself up to speed and then we’ll be willing to talk with you.” Or do we say, “Tell you what, we will reconceive who we are, and we will figure out what it’s gonna take to help you to that point.”
0:48:08.1 SA: Hopefully, they don’t call it a remediation program because I think that you’re sort of sending mixed signals, we want you but you need remediation can be… Especially for students coming with the idea that they don’t belong anyway, might be a…
0:48:23.5 DG: Absolutely.
0:48:23.7 SA: A little bit of a mixed signal there, but yes, I love the idea that they are bringing in these students and helping them to become ready and taking that extra step, I think that’s absolutely right. So speaking of big change, Biden was inaugurated yesterday, big day in the nation’s capital, and he has some pretty significant legislation that is under consideration that could impact higher ed, and I’d love for you to just talk about how you think that might impact the different paths that our institutions might see in front of them, whether it’s doubling the Pell or even some of the legislation around for-profit and OPMs, trends with international, impact of the free college programs. What are your thoughts on Biden’s potential impact?
0:49:22.5 DG: So I think it’s too soon to say that at the institution level, because all of these cut in very different ways. So for instance, if you ask my institution what do we think about doubling the Pell, we think that’s terrific, because we benefit from that one. Whereas what do we think about free college at the two-year institutions in Minnesota? You know, now we’re worried that you’re gonna substitute… People are gonna go to the two-year colleges where retention rates are lower rather than going to privates like Carleton, where retention rates are higher. And we’ll make the argument that, “Hey, that might not even pay off for the state as a whole,” but obviously we have a dog in that fight. So I think a lot of it depends on the details. Yeah, I think we have finite resources, we’re gonna have to be really, really thoughtful about how we do this, so for instance, I do get anxious when people talk about forgiveness of student loans, because that is gonna be so regressive on average, most people who have student loans regardless of if you say, “We’re only gonna pay off 10,000 or 50,000,” but certainly if you say 50,000, are people who have degrees and higher incomes. So there really is a challenge with student loans, especially among people who drop out and then they have loans, but no…
0:50:30.7 SA: No degree.
0:50:30.8 DG: No ability to repay them. But the crisis is more about an aligning of the payments with the income, and so I think just kind of these broad brush, let’s just forgive student loans, will probably send a lot of money out the door, but it won’t be very well-targeted. And so I would prefer, and I think most economists would prefer something that was a little bit more targeted, maybe income-based forgiveness or income-based repayment. Interesting, the UK does income-based repayment just by default. And here in the United States, it’s very, very controversial because it’s just not the way we’ve done things, but it seems to solve a lot of the problems that, “Hey, if you have high income, yes, you will pay but if you have low income, we’re not gonna put you in a spot where it becomes a hindrance to starting a family, getting a home, getting on with your life.” So I am anxious because a lot of these programs have big price tags that we be thoughtful, we’ve seen things in Tennessee, for instance, that suggests that the free college program does have substitution effects, that it does draw students out of the regional four years and private four years into the…
0:51:28.5 SA: To the two-year.
0:51:30.3 DG: Two-year, and that’s really… I don’t know. Is that what we intended? Maybe part of it is because… Okay, somebody might argue that, “Yes, but they did so with such a smaller financial expense,” and if they were succeeding in the two years and then they get back to that four-year degree, they want, that’s great, but we have to acknowledge that while 80% of two-year college enrollees think they want a four-year degree…
0:51:52.6 SA: Very few actually transfer.
0:51:53.9 DG: Yeah. It’s something like 20% by six years later, so I’m a little anxious about those kinds of programs that it might actually backfire by drawing students away from high success areas to lower success areas, and I guess if we do go down that route, then I’ll be… I’ll be cheering on two-year schools, let’s hope that we can get student success rates up, because if we’re drawing them into those two-year schools, let’s hope we’re doing it in a way that leads them to a successful outcome.
0:52:18.4 SA: Absolutely. So let’s talk about your advice, I love that you take a case study approach and that you’re very upfront about the fact that each institution really does need to make its own way here, that you can’t just wholesale say, “This is a strategy for everyone,” but how would you counsel, let’s start with regional privates, so that’s where we’re seeing our partners feel a ton of pain, many of them don’t have the big endowments or even cash on hand that makes this look like a rosy picture moving forward, they’ve seen enrollments drop. How would you counsel them? What would be the key steps that you would tell a president to take?
0:53:05.7 DG: So one thing I would say right now, in this moment of the pandemic is that as painful as the pandemic is, and as much as I want to just flip the page and be done with it as soon as I can, we really need to resist that urge a bit and try to say before we flip that page, what can we leverage from this experience. As you pointed out, we have transferred to… We’ve learned we’ve gotten over a lot of the fixed costs of a lot of things involving technology and instruction, and whether you’re gonna create an online program, which may or may not be appropriate for your institution, or you’re simply going to use the technologies that we’ve learned to provide a better experience for a residential in-person experience, let us not forget to write down what we learned, to figure out how we leverage those learning things for the future, and I think we see that in learning technology, we see that in the bureaucracy involved in impeding student progress. Why do forms have to be filled out in paper when online has existed for a little while now? And I still see right now at Carleton, we’re kind of in a hybrid, we’ve got some things online, so students are petitioning for things, and I just get an online form and that’s pretty easy, and then we’ve got like an overload form.
0:54:12.9 DG: I’ve had this happen a couple of times where it’s a PDF form that I have to sign and so it’s like okay I gotta print this thing out. By the time it’s all done, I think this thing gets printed out right now four times because we gotta get all these signatures and so you gotta print out the previous…
0:54:23.6 SA: Oh my gosh.
0:54:24.1 DG: Sign, scan it in and send it off, it’s like, okay, for the poor student who’s trying to track down, and then God forbid, a faculty members says, “I don’t know how to get my signature on that,” I don’t know what the student’s supposed to do. We have to leverage what has just happened, so that’d be my first piece of advice. As painful as it’s been, let’s try to take the learning that can be had, and the second is, I think one way or another, we have to lead discussions that open things up, Joey King, who’s president of Lyon College and has done some consulting, commented to me that there are a lot of institutions, when you read their mission statement, they’re really quite baggy. They don’t have that many limitations, but when you talk to the campus and you say, “Okay, what’s the essential core of this education?”
0:55:12.3 DG: Boy, there’s a long list of stuff that you can’t touch. All these sacred cows. And his experience is that if we just allow that to persist, you kind of start with the conclusion, which is nothing new can happen or very little new. It’s all, it’s only modest tweaks and somehow we have to get back to, “Wait a minute. What is our true mission? What is the very narrow essential core?” And open up conversations to other things. I know that can go and it has gone and recently, in directions of things like getting rid of tenure. As a faculty member, you won’t be surprised, I’m highly suspect of whether that’s a smart idea, because I think the importance of shared governance is so real in the long-term health of an institution, but maybe I’m just biased as a tenured faculty member. So I acknowledge…
0:55:55.3 SA: You’ve also seen faculty had votes of no confidence of provosts and presidents who are trying to move too quickly. So certainly you’ve seen those instances.
0:56:03.8 DG: Yeah, we see in the data that the faculty are less engaged with their institutions when their institutions are less engaged with them. If I have the security of tenure, I’m all in on our future, but if I don’t, it’s just reasonable that I engage in activities that build my general human capital rather than the specific human capital for this firm. So it is hard, but one way or another, we have to have these conversations that open up our self-definition, what does it mean to be our institution, so that we can think of things like you’re suggesting, about getting a narrower picture of our brand, a more specific value proposition so that we can consider whether or not there are new ways of learning that we have in the past said, “We don’t do that,” or we don’t interact with students. What do we do with online credentialing and how do we honor that with transfer or not? Maybe we need to reconsider a lot of these things so that we can broaden our student base of who we serve, but that starts with us having to be open-minded about who we are and who we’ll be.
0:57:06.4 SA: What about regional publics? Because in some ways, regional privates, while they have been hit very hard, they are more nimble. Regional publics are often constrained by being part of a system or just having a lot less latitude in terms of determining future strategy. How would you counsel presidents and leadership teams at regional publics?
0:57:29.7 DG: Yeah, one of the things I’ve heard from regional public leaders is that they’re at least initially less anxious about the budgetary fallout in an immediate sense, because they often have funding formulas that are pretty hard to change, and kinda guarantee that they get their share. I worry, however, that we can’t lean on that. That may be true in the short run, but in the medium run, I’m sure legislatures are going to look at appropriations, and at some point, they aren’t just gonna say, “We’re gonna change appropriations for the system.”
0:58:03.5 DG: At some point, they’re also gonna start saying, I think, “Well, if you aren’t teaching that many students, I’m sorry, but we’re not gonna continue to leave that formula untouched.” So I think we have to, in the regional publics case, be cognizant that while we may have short-term security and some fixity of the funding schedule, we have to be aware that that’s not a guarantee at very least. We have to be prepared for, “Yeah okay, but what happens next?”. And so I guess my counsel to the regional publics would be just a recognition of what we’ve seen in the past recessions, which is the legislature doesn’t want to make hard choices. So they look for, “Where do we have other revenue streams?” And then they cut there and say, “You guys figure it out ’cause you have another revenue stream.” And then unfortunately they often also say, “Oh, by the way, our constituents hate it when you passionately say, ‘Okay, with less funding we will raise fees.'” And you’re like, “Oh, you can’t do that.” So, yeah…
0:59:02.1 SA: It’s between a rock and a hard place. Yeah.
0:59:05.3 DG: It is, but we can’t stick our head in the sand, and think that, “Yeah, but maybe these funding formulas will remain steady enough for us to… “
0:59:14.6 SA: I think it calls into question the concept of a comprehensive because again, sometimes the business model just doesn’t go around the block. So I’ve had regional public presidents say, “We know we’re gonna be smaller. We can choose what that smaller version of ourselves is or we can let it happen to us,” which is sort of the war of attrition and trying to just save what we can, but letting it happen to us. And so they are trying to exert more assertiveness in their own destiny, but they are releasing this concept of being comprehensive. They just can’t do everything and do it well with that funding formula that will inevitably decline.
0:59:56.7 DG: Related to that, I think comes the renewed focus on student success that maybe pushes. The bottom line is it does not look good for regional publics in terms of the size of the pool, but the other good news is the retention rates at regional publics have been so traditionally poor, that you have so much potential to make up for shrinking pools, if you can just even make modest headway. If we could get rid of 25% of the attrition… Well, when you’re only retaining 60% or 70%, getting rid of a quarter of your attrition turns out to be an enormously helpful move. So I see St. Cloud State University in my home state, for instance, it started a statistics course where they were playing around with institutional data, and the students basically found what a lot of people in retention work have found, which is a sense of belonging turns out to be a pretty good predictor, especially of high-performing students who nevertheless drop out. From that, they then refined it with some work by the IRA office to say, “Okay, can we come up with a 10 question… Just 10 items, multiple choice, that they give to first year students,” I think it’s three weeks in. And they’re able to identify those kids who have a B average or better, who nevertheless have a 20% chance of not coming back for the following spring term…
1:01:16.4 SA: Because they don’t feel like they belong.
1:01:18.1 DG: Exactly, they’re just not feeling any connection. So the next problem that they’re working on is, “Okay, if we can predict who’s at risk here, can we now help faculty and staff know who those students are and try to figure out how can we rope them in in the remaining 11 or so weeks of the fall term, so that they rematriculate in the spring?” And I think regional publics have unfortunately a unique opportunity here with retention work because they have had lower success rates. And I know that, look students at these institutions are often playing the game of the opportunity cost, and so, “What would I be doing if I weren’t at school? Contributing to the family through work and so on.” It’s not as if you can get to 100%. That can’t be the goal, but we certainly could do better than where we are, and even modest changes would help a ton.
1:02:06.6 SA: Agreed and with the nationals, you were very clear that it really depends on what the elites do with the increased demand. There could be a spill-over effect. What do you think is gonna happen there and how would you counsel some of the larger institutions?
1:02:28.6 DG: So far, it seems like the Department of Justice and Harvard seemed to be heading toward… Harvard’s got a fair amount of latitude. We’ll see. But so far, that’s generally, it seems like the courts have been reluctant to just flat out say, “You can’t consider race in any way, shape or form.” Though I point out… If you go back to Bollinger and Grutter, when Sandra Day O’Connor wrote her ruling that was the majority ruling, it gave a window, an explicit window that we’re getting close to. She said, “Okay, but surely we don’t have to continue doing this forever. Maybe after 25 years, this could be done.” And time passes by, and all of a sudden you look at the calendar and you realize, “Oh, maybe the courts will change their minds about just how much we can do that.” So I’m gonna bet that we’re still gonna see that institutions are gonna have explicit or implicit ways to shape their class in ways that they want, which does mean then that those second tier institutions that often play in the same markets to some degree, there’s an overlap there in the admissions pool, are going to have opportunities if they’re willing to say, “Okay, if there are groups that are disadvantaged in the admissions process, relatively speaking, we will speak to them. And how do we do that so that they feel like… “
1:03:48.3 DG: Obviously, the winners of the game have to make these groups feel like they are winners. Students don’t wanna say like, “Okay, so what you’re proposing is that you can be my settle school.” But if institutions can come up with a way to create senses of identity for these students that are really positive, they should be able to take advantage of that to some degree.
1:04:09.1 SA: Right. Yes, that was an interesting ruling. [chuckle] And so the ethnic group that you’re talking about are Asians, with the DOJ ruling for Harvard?
1:04:19.9 DG: Exactly.
1:04:21.0 SA: Are there other ethnic groups that large and national institutions should be targeting as well?
1:04:29.0 DG: That’s a good question. I think, to some degree, you’ve got the marginal high-income students, but I think everyone’s already aware of that. The students who are strong academically, but not quite that strong, and they can write the full freight, are the ones that people in the top tier are looking at and saying, “Well, we’ll take as many as we need, but then, thank you. We’re all full.” So I don’t think there’s any second tier school that isn’t interested in that student. And unfortunately the competition with merit-based aid in those second tier schools means that while the family can pay, the family rarely does end up having to pay the full freight. So they only get a modest chunk of that. I think there’s also the reality that with the tuition assistance grants from states, low-income students also provide an interesting opportunity.
1:05:19.8 SA: That’s right.
1:05:22.2 DG: We know from the economics research that undermatching consistently occurs, especially with African American students. I read that literature with a little bit of skepticism. The definition of undermatched there is, “Hey, you could have gone to the top tier, but you didn’t.” And usually, those papers are written by people in the top tier, and I think, okay, we have to at some point open up the possibility that what these students are looking for isn’t you. Their definition of the top tier is different, so if I can be a national institution that can thoughtfully redefine myself in a way that is appealing…
1:05:58.6 SA: More what they want. That’s right.
1:06:00.1 DG: Exactly, exactly. But I think it’s gotta be more than, “Yeah, yeah, we’re willing to have you.” Well, good for you, but are you willing to be a different institution? To be the place where they don’t feel like welcome guests, but rather where they feel like, “I belong. This is home”? And that requires a little bit more on our part.
1:06:16.7 SA: That’s interesting, that’s very interesting. Nathan, thank you so much for the conversation. It was fascinating. Everyone, remember to order your books on Amazon, The Agile College, it came out last Tuesday. It’s available on Kindle or in hardback. And it’s good reading. So thank you so much, Nathan, I really appreciate the conversation.
1:06:40.2 DG: Thank you.
1:06:47.1 Speaker 1: Thanks for listening. Join us next week when EAB’s Kathy Dawley and Al Newell discuss findings from EAB’s most recent parent communication survey. They’ll also share better ways to engage today’s parents in the college recruiting process. Until next week, thanks for listening to Office Hours with EAB.
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