Will the real university please stand up


From Todd J. Broadman, writing an editorial for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News

I looked around the seminar room to confirm whether I was the only one bored to tears. The presenter from University of Idaho was gliding his way through PowerPoints as a model would saunter along a fashion show catwalk, stopping to pose and allow the anxious staff to soak up the latest university enrollment haute couture.

The yield rate – those enrolled as a percentage of those admitted – is 28 percent, and evidently that won’t do at all. In corporate sales lingo we called it the conversion rate. Yield though, sounds more academic and seminar worthy.

In Idaho, 21 out of 100 students don’t complete high school, and of the 79 that do, 33 will choose not to “go on” to college. By my reckoning, that is 54 individuals entering the workforce at around the age of 18, while the other 46 sink their feet into student loan debt.


“We are going on and going up,” chided the presenter, “as Idaho is 50th in the nation, up is the only direction left for us.” That provided just enough levity for the left-brained note-takers among us to momentarily forget that their bi-weekly auto-payment may depend on many more students choosing to sink their feet into that debt quagmire.

Doug Shapiro, of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, talks of the “stagnating numbers of new high school graduates, adding that, these forces show no sign of slowing and will continue to challenge institutions in their planning.”

“Challenge … their planning?” Not in the least – planning is the university administrator’s clarion call; this in an industry that would dry up and blow away if it wasn’t for the conveyer belt of committees, flagship goals, strategic plans, education programs and initiatives. And colleges will, of course, need more administrators to ensure enthusiastic support and engagement for these processes.

On a less cynical and more fundamental note, the question itself could use some rephrasing. It is not so much the dismal go-on rate that perplexes, but rather the overarching question: What is going on here?

There are a couple of different, somewhat divergent messages that emanate from the machinery of the ivory tower: One is externally focused and intended for paying customers – students that is. This is the catwalk, the fashion show: We are about access to the world of ideas, about opening doors of opportunity for you, about setting you on a higher-income career trajectory.

Granted, there is some merit and real deliverables behind this messaging for students who are prepared for college-level work, are emotionally well-adjusted and have begun to work out the details of a career path, yet the majority are wary of the promises and justifiably so. They are in need of individual direction based on their skills and desires, not broad averages telling them they will earn a million dollars more than their high school grad cohort over their career. It contributes to their confusion and apathy and doesn’t help with referrals.

The other message is internally focused. These are the slides that disclose to university employees – to be transparently correct – the university budget. Pie charts are the favored medium. Roughly 25 percent of the University of Idaho’s budget comes from student’s pocketbooks and the dependence on their pocketbooks is growing. The upshot of this employee message is that although a last resort, brace yourself for program cuts – a commonplace cautionary tale amongst bloated government agencies.


This external and internal messaging is not complementary, nor student centric. What it is, is a sign of institutional schizophrenia.

How long this patient is going to last is anyone’s guess. What we can be certain of though, is that when complete psychosis sets in, the professional educators will be pointing to one culprit: a lack of funding.