Higher education has a relevancy problem

Posted 12/2/21

Last month, the Northwest College Board of Trustees took up the topic of the college’s transformation and rebranding. Compared to the exuberant discussions of past meetings, the conversation …

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Higher education has a relevancy problem


Last month, the Northwest College Board of Trustees took up the topic of the college’s transformation and rebranding. Compared to the exuberant discussions of past meetings, the conversation was tinged with more than a hint of weariness. The board and administration have been discussing transformation for years, and a firm direction for the college’s future still hasn’t fully materialized.

A new identity for NWC must grapple with a number of sometimes competing  interests, including those of prospective students, alumni and faculty.

Front and center is the question of how the college could reinvent itself to appeal to more students. How do you make the education it offers relevant? This is the question just about every higher education institution in America is trying to answer.

Northwest College held several public input sessions, did extensive research, and hired consultants, who helped the board and administration develop four different proposed models to build an identity that would draw in more students.

These include a destination model, which would tap into the college’s association with Yellowstone National Park, and a workforce model that partners with industries and businesses to provide training and skill development. Whether any of these will improve enrollment is really a matter of speculation, which makes it hard to commit to any one of the options.

Across this country, colleges and universities are fiercely competing for an ever-shrinking pool of students. According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, postsecondary enrollment last month had dropped 2.6% below 2020 figures, which brings the total drop since 2019 to 5.8%.

Enrollment at community colleges historically boomed during economic downturns as unemployed people filled their time learning new skills.

However, in the current economy, which is still trying to recover from the pandemic, two-year colleges saw no such upward trend. Since 2019, community college enrollment has fallen 14.1%. During this past year, NWC has seen some modest increases, which makes it a bit of an anomaly.

Surveys show that concerns about affordability and post-graduation debt burdens top the list of why high school graduates are heading for the workforce rather than college. But on this point, NWC is already extremely competitive, which may explain why it’s bucking enrollment trends as of late. With shrinking support from the state, there isn’t a lot more NWC could do in this regard. So, the board must ask how to take the college to another level.

During last month’s discussion, Trustee John Housel pointed to the college’s reputation of being Wyoming’s liberal arts college, whereas Trustee Bob Newsome questioned if today’s budget-minded students would be attracted to an education that doesn’t provide a direct path to an income.

The two perspectives are wrestling with the question of how to make postsecondary education relevant for students coming to Northwest College. More and more, college-bound students are asking what they’re getting for the expense. Marketable job skills are an easy metric by which to measure a degree’s value, which can appeal to prospective students.

But what about the traditional, well-rounded curriculum that provides students with a foundation of learning that equips future leaders with the tools they need?

The relevancy of that tradition has come into question, which is concerning.

The political climate on today’s college and university campuses is steeped in students who feel that any challenge to their progressive left politics is, quite literally, akin to violence. They demand to be protected from dissenting opinions and purge speakers from campus who might challenge their perspective, depriving many students of the opportunity to hear a diversity of viewpoints. It’s an environment that demands conformity and is hostile to intellectual inquiry outside its orthodoxy.

From this environment comes a lot of students who are taught what to think but not how to think, which is the whole point to a liberal arts education.

It’s likely this has caused many students to view the traditional liberal arts education as an expensive education in how to be social justice warriors, which is something they aren’t willing to go into debt for.

This year, a group of journalists, authors, professors, entrepreneurs and former administrators announced they’d be founding the University of Austin. According to its website, it’s an institution dedicated to providing “freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscience and civil discourse.”

The university’s founding trustees include Bari Weiss, former editor at the New York Times who resigned over the intolerant atmosphere at the paper, and pro-capitalism entrepreneur Joe Lonsdale, whose tweets include such statements as, “Marxism is the most pessimistic and destructive philosophy.”

In an interview with Fox Business, Lonsdale said the university has already received inquiries from numerous professors interested in the project. Whether or not it will take off with students is yet to be seen, but it indicates there is a demand for a relevant, traditional liberal arts education.

If NWC continues to maintain a commitment to its traditional liberal arts curriculum, as Housel proposed, it could distinguish itself by openly declaring itself as a place where a free exchange of ideas is fostered and encouraged.

Whether or not that would draw in students is as much a matter of speculation as much as establishing more trades programs for industrial workforce training. Considering so many unknowns, it’s perhaps understandable why the board is still trying to select a definite path for the transformation.

Trustee Carolyn Danko pointed out that, while NWC hadn’t committed to any single proposed transformational model, it had been implementing pieces and parts of each.

“We have our foot in every one of those,” Danko said.

It might be a good idea to not put all their eggs in one basket. Keep an egg in each and see what hatches. For now, it’s anyone’s guess.