And Another Academic Year Begins…

Across the country, we’re welcoming students to our campuses – but are there dark clouds on higher education’s horizon?

Colleges and universities across the country are undergoing a seasonal transformation, from relatively tranquil oases to frenetic hives of activity, as the students, new and returning, arrive on campus for another academic year. It’s the circle of life, campus style, playing out in highly predictable ways.

In the midst of the excitement of the students’ arrival, there are poignant vignettes of parents saying goodbye to their sons and daughters. It is often a traumatic time for both students and parents – and this seems to be particularly true for parents trying to cope as their first-born, or last-born, leaves the nest.

Colleges do their level best to tamp down the anxiety levels for the students, by ensuring they stay far too busy the first few days on campus to have time to miss Mom and Dad. It’s not always as easy to help the parents. For instance, last Friday, as I assisted with move-in (something I’ve been doing for almost two decades), I saw once again the validity of the old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” To explain: at Roger Williams University, dozens of upperclassmen help with unloading the cars and vans. As a consequence, what parents expected to be a grueling, hot and sweaty two hours is typically done in about 10 minutes.

Most of the parents are grateful for the help. But last week one father looked bewildered. He had expected a long and gradual goodbye with his daughter, as they made repeated trips between the car and her room in the residence hall. Instead, he found the task completed almost instantaneously, as half a dozen students descended on his truck and emptied it in one giant move. He turned to one of our residence hall staff, and in an anguished voice said, “Now what do I do?”

We suggested that he take his daughter to our Dining Commons for an iced coffee.

Yet at a time when campuses are springing back to life, like the flowers in a meadow after April rains, there are two dark clouds on higher education’s horizon.

The first cloud came in the form of President Obama’s announcement of his campaign to make higher education both more affordable and more relevant (from the standpoint of job preparedness). Since we at RWU have been addressing these very same themes for more than a year (I’ll have more to say about Affordable Excellence: Year Two in an upcoming blog posting), we were neither particularly surprised nor particularly concerned. But colleges that have been clinging to a broken model, wherein tuition continues to increase annually at a rate higher (sometimes much higher) than the increase in the Consumer Price Index, and colleges that have continued to extoll the virtues of the liberal arts as the be-all and end-all of an undergraduate degree, immediately pushed back against the president’s proposed changes.

This issue is almost certainly going to be the focus of considerable contention between Washington and many college campuses in the coming months.

The second dark cloud is only now coming into focus. It is slowly becoming apparent that many colleges have fallen well short of their fall 2013 enrollment targets for new students. This outcome should surprise no one who has paid even a little attention to the demographics of the high school graduating classes. Most states reached their high water mark in terms of the number of high school graduates in 2009 or 2010. By fall 2013, every state east of the Mississippi had seen a decrease in high school graduates – and the eastern half of the country now has significant overcapacity in terms of the number of college seats.

Two other factors amplify the consequences of this shrinking pool of prospective college students, especially for the private institutions that do not enjoy the benefits of billion-dollar endowments. First, the proportion of first-generation college students arriving from high school graduating classes is growing, reflecting the growing ethnic diversity of K-12 students in general. As a whole, these students are somewhat less affluent than previous generations of students, and are very cost-sensitive regarding the price of a college education. Expensive private colleges can expect to be significantly impacted, especially those that insist on raising their sticker prices every year.

Second, a new report on ACT scores (ACT and SAT are the two major standardized tests taken by prospective college students nationwide) shows a decline in average scores, with 31 percent of the test takers deemed not ready for college.

A smaller, poorer, less well-prepared cohort of high school graduates does not augur well for tuition-dependent private colleges and universities.

But it’s not all bad news. I’m pleased to say that at RWU we have exceeded our fall 2013 target for new students – we were seeking 1030 freshmen, but have 1120 heading our way. The retention of last year’s freshman class (i.e., those returning for their sophomore year) is up more than 6 percent, a huge jump in a single year.

What accounts for these numbers? We hired a well-known national firm to analyze this year’s entering class at RWU, and learned – to our delight – that our decision to freeze tuition for 2013 at the 2012 rate, and to lock it in for four years for both of those classes, coupled with our commitment to project-based learning (to prepare our students to be job-ready at graduation) were primary factors influencing both the decision made by prospective students and their parents to choose RWU, and, apparently, the decision of last year’s freshman class to return in record numbers for their sophomore year.

But it is no time to rest on our laurels. We will be augmenting Affordable Excellence in ways I will describe, following our State of the University address on September 11.

Now is definitely not the time to go back to the old model of annual increases in sticker price. Universities are like populations of organisms at a time of environmental change. They must adapt or die. As a biologist, I believe in adapting.