Interview with Dr. Nathan Grawe on antifragile systems in Higher Ed

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" those institutions are either going to adapt or you are going to run into some serious trouble in a short amount of time"


DegreeSight’s founder and CEO, David Cook, alongside Head of Engagement, John Borum, interview Dr. Nathan Grawe about his thoughts and insights concerning the current state of higher education. 


Dr. Grawe is Professor of Economics at Carleton College and the author of Demographics and The Demand for Higher Education, as well as the follow-up project, The Agile College. Often cited for his work with identifying the upcoming demographic shifts and the “Enrollment Cliff” in higher education, Dr. Grawe is seen as one of the foremost experts on college sustainability.


This virtual discussion, recorded on July 14th, 2022, includes Dr. Grawe’s insights on:

  • antifragile systems 
  • enrollment trends 
  • how to improve student access while encouraging new demographics to join higher education 
  • tactics universities can deploy to increase retention over time
  • transfer students and behavioral psychology
  • where to find new students when enrollment trends decline
  • stackable credits

Interview Transcript

David: [00:00:03] Hi, everybody. This is David Cook with DegreeSight and we are thrilled to welcome Dr. Nathan Grawe today as we have a conversation with him here on higher education and, specifically, the transfer student as well as retention of transfer students and students as a whole. Dr. Grawe is the Ada M. Harrison Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences, Professor of Economics at Carleton College. He is also the author of Demographics and Demand for Higher Education, as well as The Agile College, a well known speaker, author and publicist. And I have with me today as well Dr. John Borum, our Head of Engagement. And today we want to just have an open conversation, not overly scripted. We are just going to talk about some of the challenges that Dr. Grawe sees in the market, what he believes are the best strategies that universities can apply to survive and grow and thrive through this change. And that is about it! So, Dr. Grawe, thank you for being here. Excited to have you!



Grawe: [00:01:05] Thanks so much for having me.



David: [00:01:08] Well, let us start off with our first question. You talk about antifragile systems in a number of your books and publications and interviews and whether higher education truly is one. So can higher education adapt? And do you feel that the majority of universities will fall into this adapting category?



Grawe: [00:01:30] Yeah, that is a great question. I think we can think about this on two levels. We can think about the sector of higher education, and then we can think of the institution level. I think it is clearer that the sector is antifragile because we have seen tons of evidence recently and over the entire history of higher education, of adaptation. So, for instance, we see the rise of the online institution in the last 10 or 20 years, and that is a completely new way of doing education. So in that sense, clearly we have some antifragile characteristics, but for most of us in higher Ed, the more pressing question is the institutional one. Is my institution specifically going to be part of the future, or does the adaptation that occurs mean that my institution gets left behind in history? And that I think is less clear. I am optimistic, and I think we now have even more evidence than when I wrote the book.



Grawe: [00:02:24] Given the COVID episode, we saw incredible capacity to rethink how we delivered education, what was core, what was maybe on the periphery that we would be willing to allow, for a time at least, pass away. Now, of course, COVID was a very pronounced, in-your-face kind of stimulus, and it was perceived as being temporary. Obviously, it has gone on a lot longer than any of us wished, but I think we can still consider it relatively temporary compared to some of these other forces that higher education faces. And so some critics have said, look, obviously faculty and staff are willing and able to adapt to short term stimulus when they can see very immediately that enrollments and therefore employment are hinging on willingness to change, whereas demographic change is a slower moving force, it is more persistent. And so it calls on us to do things not just for a time, but maybe for the foreseeable future, including the entirety of the remainder of my career. And the changes are incremental.



Grawe: [00:03:25] And so it is not the motivation for me as a faculty member to respond to the institutional call to adapt, might not be as great. I might say, look this class isn’t that different than last class. We lose 1% of enrollment and that is a challenge. But it does not demand that we rethink everything. Whereas COVID was the kind of thing where I think many institutions really were contemplating, “if we do not get a bailout, will we be able to keep our doors open through the course of this pandemic” So I think it remains to be seen, but I think we do have evidence of capacity for change. We have got a lot of smart people who have frankly already done a lot of smart research. We know a lot, for instance, about the retention problem. And in higher education, you know, it is a bit embarrassing when we see student success numbers, at least in aggregate. And if we were to really, really address that student success problem, certainly for higher education as a whole, there is no need for enrollments to decline, despite a pretty precipitous drop in the number of young people coming of age. So I remain hopeful, even though I certainly recognize the challenges are severe. And we also have some cultural challenges to overcome.



David: [00:04:32] Absolutely. So there is a number of things that you just said that I think are each important and could be elaborated on for the next hour. One of them, of course, is the personal motivations of the faculty and the administrative staff at universities and whether or not a 1% drop really is seen to each individual department as important or critical enough to cause a change. Another area that I think is interesting that we can talk about is, “Does a tremendously impactful driver like COVID come out and cause a long-term change?” Versus, as you mentioned, the entirety of your career might be changed now. Higher education as a whole might be seeing a new shift. I do sense that there is a bit of a bounce back, a desire to go back to the norm because there is such a small amount of data. I know that a lot of data was collected during the COVID timeline, but like anything in higher education, our data tends to come out 2 to 4 years late anyways and we then figure out what had happened. So right now we are still trying to digest really what is the impact on students and on their success and on the workforce and on alumni and their perceptions of our education, which of course is very important as well.



David: [00:05:41] So since we have Dr. Borum here, Dr. Borum came from the enrollment side of the house. And so you mentioned that 1% drop in students. Dr. Grawe is maybe not seen as a tremendous concern for some people in the administration and the faculty side. Dr. Borum, would you talk a little bit about what that might mean to an institution when you even see 1% drop in a smaller private college that may be really tuition driven?



Borum: [00:06:09] Absolutely. Any kind of drop or negative trending is concerning. It certainly does take some time to see that trend continue before you can associate it, in my opinion, before you can associate it with something out of your control. I think a number of enrollment professionals who are successful would at least like to think in their own minds that they have control over some of these things that they can move that trend one way or the other with a strategy or with tweaking maybe some of their standards or using different policies like test optional. I thought it was interesting Dr. Grawe when we were discussing the adaptability of colleges. You know, I come from small, private, liberal arts schools, and while I did teach as an adjunct, my mindset certainly is that of an administrator, as an enrollment centric administrator. And so when I was teaching a class, if I had a student who wasn’t turning in his papers or was struggling, I would pursue him like I would try to work with him, anything I could do to get him to persist and succeed in the class directly associating my success with his or her success.


[00:07:38] And I did notice when working with other faculty that this was a disconnect. It seemed like some other faculty, and this is totally understandable, whether the student persists or not is the outcome. So if they are not going to put the time in, if they are not going to study, and if the metrics kept, such as grades and attendance, show that that student is not doing well, then that student has a lesson to learn and they are going to fail that class. But again, the student success. We begin coaching all of our faculty at our institution to do what I was doing, which is pursue the student. And that is significantly different, I am guessing. So I am curious, as a faculty, Have you seen a shift there as well? And what are your thoughts on the role of the faculty in ensuring student success?



Grawe: [00:08:39] Yeah, I think that is a great point. You were coming at it from an enrollment management administration perspective, and maybe that helps you see things as a faculty member a little bit differently. But it is very easy for a faculty member to view that enrollment retention as somebody else’s problem. As you point out, I think there is truth on both sides. Students will do better if they own their own education. If I am constantly hand-holding and I am doing the work to get them across the line, they would not learn as much. And ultimately they are not getting what they need, too. So there is truth to a degree in that perspective that the student needs to learn. And yeah we need to teach. We need to meet them where they are at. If the student is not at that level of personal competency to turn in assignments and so on, whose job is it then to help the student come along to get to that point?



Grawe: [00:09:29] And I have seen institutions try to do this work of making retention owned by everybody on campus as opposed to just some enrollment management function in a couple of different ways. And a couple of institutions, they have made it really, really explicitly tied to compensation as a way to, you know, you said you understood that the success of the student is the success of you. We are one and the same. How do we help the community understand that look, this institution cannot thrive if the students are not thriving? And by putting it into the compensation package, sometimes that message gets across. So one example is Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where then President Hanno said, we really cannot claim to be a top national liberal arts college and have a first year retention rate below 90%.



[00:10:15] I mean, at some point, as you said, student success is institutional success. And so there was a bounty placed on that first year retention rate. So that when the campus crosses that threshold, everybody on campus gets a raise. And I think it was interesting as a way to communicate, everybody on campus gets a raise, whether you are a grounds keeping staff member or you are a custodian in a dorm or you are a faculty member. If you have contact with students, you are part of the retention team.



Borum: [00:10:39] That is right.



Grawe: [00:10:40] And, you know, it is how do we make that clear? I think the other place where I have seen institutions go is really calling on the cultural motivations that draw people to Higher Ed. Most of us do not get into this line of work because we are looking for a lot of money. Some of us get into it because it is relatively stable, both on the staff and faculty side. But most of us are, at least in large part, motivated by a desire to work with, whether it is young people or people who are younger in their career path, they might be chronologically older than I am, but part of their career path is behind me and to pass something on.



Grawe: [00:11:20] And I think that motivation can be used as well. This is what drew you into education. You did not come into education so that you could follow kids and say, look, you did not turn in assignments, so you are out of here, was not that fun for me? That is not what drew you in. What drew you in, was the possibility of transforming lives. And what I think about my students, the students who come in, turn in their assignments and are doing great work and have great study habits, are not the students, frankly, that were heavily marked by me. Sometimes they might be intellectually marked by me and they go on to graduate school, and that is a fun kind of reward. But the students who I arguably played a bigger role in transforming their lives were the students who were on the margins, who could have gone either way. And if, like you, a faculty member can pursue that student and bring them along to the point where they can succeed, not only in school, but also then learn the skills necessary to have a productive life after college. Well, that truly is a life transformed.



[00:12:17] And so I think we can play; we can use financial Susquehanna College as another example where they have just built the retention figures right into the compensation pool. [Your] pay you will find out in the fall, when we find out in the fall how many students return. I think that is arguably a good way to have everyone understand the financial health of the institution’s dependency on retention. But I think we can also call people’s better angels and say we know what got you enthusiastic about this enterprise. Let us lean into that and, it will take some work on the front end, but I bet you will have some really great mountaintop highs. And I bet you did as a faculty member, specifically with those students who may not have been the best students, “whatever best student means”, but yet you made a difference in their life.



Borum: [00:13:03] Yeah, but there definitely is a delicate balance between working with them and enabling them. And you always want to maintain academic integrity. And for every student that you are having to sometimes feel like you are drag along, there is all these students who you are not and you feel an onus to them that there should be additional reward recognition for their inherent integrity in pursuing that something is associated with their name and they are going to take it seriously.



Grawe: [00:13:40] On the other hand, there is so much research about the retention issues. It is not like we do not know what the factors are that contribute heavily to attrition. Some of these things I do not have a lot of control over. So, for instance, the financial side as a faculty member I [inaudible] control over. But notions of social belonging and academic preparation, I actually can do a lot with. So, in my time at Carleton, for instance, I have started doing pre-testing in my principles of economics classes on just basic quantitative reasoning skills. So that I can find out in the first couple of days of class which students are at risk because they are trying to learn economics while they are still brushing up on maybe some algebra skills in the past.



[00:14:20] In the past, I would have not necessarily known until the first midterm comes back, and I realized, Oh oh, we have got some problems here, but by then we have got a C or a D already in the grade book, the student is discouraged. The student is behind the eight ball because that grade is already booked and there is not as much I can do, which if I can find that student in the first week of class, reach out to them and say, okay, I see that you are indicating to me that you could use some assistance and brushing up on algebra. Why do not either I do that or I can get you connected with the Quantitative Resource Center? Let us plan on meeting in office hours to go over the material and try to figure out where you can use some additional assistance.



Grawe: [00:15:03] And let us get that to you before that first grade. We know what the factors are and so that can inform how we interact with our classes. No doubt. Not that we can solve every problem, but we will solve some of the problems. And I think also the conversations like you and I are having just between colleagues, I mean, how do you do it when you have got a student who is not showing up to class? How do you approach them? And to hear somebody else maybe writes the email with a slightly different tone than I do, and I realize, “Oh, maybe that is why they are not replying to my email, because you are writing a much more effective email, pushing different buttons.”



Borum: [00:15:38] Sure.



Grawe: [00:15:39] Right. There is a lot of tradecraft that we can share as faculty. And maybe that is where, again, the administration side, the leaders in enrollment management, can have a role in creating opportunities for faculty to come together. But then faculty can learn one from another, best practices, what other faculty have learned, either from reading the research or just from from years of experience.



Borum: [00:16:01] Yeah. I think there is definitely. When you talk about Wheaton pursuing such a high retention rate, I studied this for my dissertation and schools with the highest retention rates like Brown, for example – there is a direct correlation between retention and how selective the university is for admission. So for small liberal arts schools who are doing what they can to survive and to pay the bills, it seems like a lofty goal to try to get to anywhere over 75 to 80% retention rate without significantly adjusting the way that they enroll students. Have you seen a correlation between the way that students are admitted and the university’s ability to retain them?



Grawe: [00:16:51] Yes, that is certainly true. In Wheaton’s case, they were already in the mid to high eighties and so this was a push. This can be distinct, as you point out, a different institution that might be starting with a 60% retention rate, might have both very different goals and very different methods because they are in a different situation. But one example of, you know, the possible virtuous cycle here would be the University of Southern Maine. Which I believe it was someplace in 2012-2014, had some serious retrenchment resulting from the fact that Maine is demographically depressed. So they were having fewer students reaching age 18 and fewer students enrolling. They brought in a new enrollment management officer who said, Look, we need to change the way we recruit, but it is not the way that you all might be thinking. It is not we are going to go just let everybody in the door. Instead, we are going to let fewer people in, because right now we are not doing a good job of finding students who we can actually serve. So we are going to be a little bit more selective to make sure that we are omitting students who actually can’t succeed. But at the same time, secondly, we are going to do a heck of a lot better job on advising for retention. So that those who we are admitting who we can, we actually do have a good match with these students. We are going to actually fulfill that promise.


[00:18:07] And they saw retention rates go up, I believe it was by eight percentage points, which is pretty healthy for a short period. And it allowed them, despite having fewer students walking in the front have the net fee income rise. So they could actually do some things strategically for the institution. So I think I would not want institution to do only one half of that to just say we are not going to let as many students and we are going to find only the students who we are a better match with. I think made sense when it was paired with, “and we are going to redouble efforts to actually fulfill our promise.”



Grawe: [00:18:44] So I am not advocating for reducing access, but rather to be very serious about the enterprise that we are not trying to admit students and flunk them out, saddle them with debt. We are trying to move students forward in their lives. And that means being honest about who we can serve and then actually doing it. And some of the actual doing it was things like 90 minute advising meetings before the students set foot on campus in the fall. They were identifying students, for instance, who had learning disabilities so that there could be accommodations before those first exams, where in the past they had been identifying those students too late in the cycle. So the student would come, they would struggle with an exam. At some point someone would say, Hey, maybe there is a learning disability here, and it would get diagnosed and accommodated. But then of course, you again created the problem. The students already had a bad first experience with college, and they are behind the eight ball on whether or not they are actually going to maintain the credits necessary to keep moving forward even in the first term.



[00:19:43] So again, I think the research is pretty clear on the kinds of things we can do that do have effect. And in that context, it was not trying to get a first year retention rate up to 90%. So a different context and different choices. So I think you are absolutely right. You have to ask, where are we at? What is realistic for us? Who are the students that we are reaching and bringing in the front door. Be honest about whether that is a real match for who your institution can serve. And also be honest about, “Are we doing everything that we actually do know how to do, to meet the needs of these students?”



Borum: [00:20:17] That is right. That is especially true at faith based universities that are using calling as a part of their recruiting strategy. It is so important that if we feel they are called there, that we work to maintain that they are there.



Grawe: [00:20:35] Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, college has been an important part of my life. But so has its support structures, right? I mean, I felt called to this job, but I would not succeed at it without the support of my wife. So I have got a part, God has got a part, and people around me have their part. And so, we are stepping into students at that point in their lives where they might well feel calling to pursue education at our campus. We should take that as a pretty serious holy mission then to do our part. But if I am a stumbling block to the student pursuing, “What is their calling?” that sounds like something I really want to get straight. So taking it as seriously as the students take it or, maybe as their parents take it, depending on…



David: [00:21:19] Depending on who is paying for it.



Grawe: [00:21:20] Exactly. I mean, I have got a daughter who is now she is going to start her junior year at Wheaton in Illinois. And it has been interesting to watch how often I think about interactions with my students through that lens of, “what would I want if this were my daughter going to a faculty member?” And it is a little embarrassing. I  do not know. You can only draw on experiences that you have had in life. So I have not had this experience before, but a little embarrassing not to have necessarily had that thought as viscerally for the entirety of the 23 years of being at Carlton. But it does change when you think about how would I want, how would I want a faculty member to respond to my daughter if she was the one in that seat.



David: [00:22:01] Dr. Grawe, I want to talk about a few things here as far as academic preparation and the 90 minute advising meetings before you meet with students, and creating correlation and belonging – correlation between, of course, the selectiveness and whether if you are a large college, you can just say bring them all in, or a smaller college who has to really try and cast a wider net – one of the challenges that comes with much of this, and it really is a retention at the systems process and problem, it’s an operations challenge, is simply to get that kind of awareness in that time, and that presence in front of a student. You have to know the student that is in trouble first, to your point, by identifying them upfront. But to know that they are going to be in trouble, you have to have either that 90 minute meeting or some other kind of analysis done up front to identify who might be at risk in your class or generally at the institution.



David: [00:22:56] Now, you mentioned a moment ago that you are doing the pre analysis of students’ specific capabilities with algebra before they take your economics class. Dr. Borum has mentioned before other types of statistical analysis and I believe it’s in your dissertation or thesis, John, that talks about other statistical analysis to identify weaknesses in students that might affect retention.



David: [00:23:18] But when you look at institutions, there are two different sides of the coin. One is the large institution with on average 600 students per advisor. You cannot have a 90 minute meeting with each student if you have 600 students, there just is not enough time of the day. But at the same time, those institutions tend to have additional surplus funds to build in and purchase and acquire and customize large scale operational systems to help them really identify the students that are on the edge that need the help. But then there are the smaller institutions, and that funding is not typically there in as deep of a manner. The additional faculty and staff and administrative team is not there to implement such rigorous systems, I should say.



David: [00:24:08] So that kind of comes in, then, to meet the thought of what we are seeing in the market – I think at the very beginning of the trend here – is a lot of consolidation. And it is like any market, any industry, you tend to see this where the larger institutions that get the operational pieces set up well will then come in and buy niche players in the market who are better at one specific thing. That one specific thing might be your brand. It might be your location. It might be the way you address students’ calling as an example. Do you see consolidation being something that continues to grow further in higher education or was that maybe just a reaction to COVID and also just generally some of the for-profits coming in?



Grawe: [00:24:53] I think the for-profit side is just fundamentally different. I mean, we had sort of a big frothy market as the online especially, but also the for-profit sector emerged. And so you have got a bunch of players jump in. We had some regulatory response from the Obama administration to tighten some things down. Not surprisingly, that meant that probably not all of the entrants could stay. And so then we have had a shakeout. And so when I look at the Department of Education statistics on institutions closing their doors and you see this big spike over there in the for-profit sector. I think those forces are just fundamentally different than what we see with the more modest spike, but yet an increase in the private or the not. That is the not for-profit. The public has not seen closures recently, so it is the private not for-profits where you see a smaller spike, but, nonetheless, a spike. So I think those are kind of two different things. I think we are probably going to see in essence a shakeout in the online and we will reach some new equilibrium. And then we can think about what are the forces that might cause consolidation over there as well.



[00:26:00] As far as consolidation in the more traditional, not for-profit sector, a lot of focus has been on the private, not for-profit. And that is obviously that they do not have the state as a backstop and most institutions do not have an endowment that is going to significantly buy them time. So they are almost entirely dependent on enrollment. And when your tuition driven and you are in the Great Lakes of the Northeast region and you see the decline in the number of kids and you see how many, I mean, you can barely throw a stone without hitting a private liberal arts college. You can understand the stresses there. And yet I would point out that the privates are also having these consolidation questions. I am sorry, the publics, they are recognizing [that] they have more branch campuses than they might want. Obviously, the state has many purposes when it establishes a branch campus… It is not just about how many butts are in seats.



[00:26:59] But if we focus on that consolidation prospects for the private sector, I am optimistic in the sense that I think we have got a lot of research and a lot of motivation and a lot of people who would like to do anything except to see their institution close. And so I think we will see adaptation more than people are anticipating. That puts me on the more positive side. And yet, there are some institutions where they are really struggling, and if it had not been for the bailouts during COVID, it is really questionable if they wouldn’t have made it through. Robert Zemsky and some coauthors wrote a book, The College Stress Test, where they use IPEDS data to try to figure out which institutions are under real existential threat versus just kind of in a perpetual grind versus thriving. And they estimated just before the pandemic that maybe 10% of institutions were at serious risk of failure. Then at the beginning of the pandemic, I think Zemsky said he thought maybe 20% of institutions would fail. What he did not know about was the bailouts.



[00:28:01] And so, now I think a lot of people are just waiting to see. Obviously, the COVID effects have lingered in terms of enrollment, and so the bailouts are ending and now what happens next? So, I think, it is right to worry about these institutions because most small privates just don’t have that many levers to pull. They do not have significant donations coming in, where you could realistically say you are going to make up for tuition losses just by getting more gifts, and they do not have endowments that will allow them to just burn their endowment for 50 years to get through a soft patch or something like that. So those institutions are either going to adapt or you are going to run into some serious trouble in a short amount of time.



David: [00:28:47] One interesting statistic I saw recently, and fortunately this data finally became updated – about eight-ish years ago, we had data that showed that first generation students who were coming into college, only about 10% of them had some prior education, whether it be a dual enrollment or a CLEP or AP or other – 10%. The latest data that came out about, I think late last year, if not earlier this year, now says it is up to 34%. That creates itself another economic pressure that is going to be hard for institutions to address, kind of on two things, two sides of it. If students come in with an entire semester or potentially an entire year, or in many cases now an entire associate’s degree done by the time they finish high school, that changes the profit potential of each student as they come into the institution.



Grawe: [00:29:34] And unfortunately, the cost is about the same, unfortunately.



David: [00:29:36] Absolutely. And one other element that we tend to hear is that students who have those credits will retain hire. The retention rate is through the roof. Their performance rate is through the roof. They are also much more selective with which institutions they attend. Meaning, by the time they talk to you, they are very educated about your institution. They know almost everything about your program, your degree, what jobs are coming out. And so your opportunity to impact their metrics, their outcomes is limited – They already pre filtered, they are not on the edge, they are their own spike. But that is now becoming a much larger percentage of students that universities in many ways do not have control over. The only thing that we believe and from again, as a DegreeSight transfer supportive technology provider, that you can do is just be more transparent and more operationally efficient with them. But from a faculty standpoint and an overall institution standpoint, I feel like, looking at just human behavioral patterns and psychology, if there are students who are coming in and they are new, one of the things you mentioned before was impacting retention through social belonging, academic preparation… transfer students do not have social belonging. They are more focused on the outcome than the experience. As for academic preparation, we assume they are prepared. Because they have all these credits. But a transfer is not always going to be those who are first time with credit. 40% of students transfer after having enrolled. And ideally that is a student who is going to a community college and transferring up to a four year, and they are progressing their life in a great direction. But many of them are not. And so do you see a trend or an awareness in the market that transfer students need the same level of support and proactive impetus and effort placed on them. That when they come in, they need to be academically prepared, someone needs to be plugging them in, that they need to be supported effectively? Because one of the things we tend to hear about often is transfer shock – that the transfer students who are not transferring necessarily always up but sometimes laterally, are already in trouble. They are already not now socially connected, and the academic preparedness might not be there as well. And then to your point, faculty members are not technically beholden to their retention.



Grawe: [00:32:03] The other challenge is obviously when a student transfers in with credits. The credits say that they took a course that was “equivalent to” but whether it actually was. Even in states that have tried to do really good work to make the courses similar. You know, I think anyone who is taught in a sequential curriculum knows that there are a lot of different ways to accomplish a similar course. And whether it actually dovetails with the course that follows and uses this as a pre-req is a good question. So my experience at Carleton, and we have admittedly had limited experience with transfers, is that the transfer student not only requires the same amount of attention in terms of these kinds of preparation issues, but a more flexible form of it. Because I as a faculty member have to, and staff members have to, recognize the nature of the gaps that they are facing might be very different. So they might be at a very high level. They actually have accomplished something with those previous courses, but they do not necessarily have all of the coverage that the student who did the equivalent course at Carleton actually has. And so they might just have a gap and it can be filled but may be filled pretty quickly because the student might be actually pretty adept, to say in my case at mathematics they just have not seen that particular skill and we expect that they have at that point in the curriculum.



Grawe: [00:33:26] So I think what it calls for is real intentionality. It’s a recognition that the transfer student has a more diverse background at any point that you see them at your campus than some of your home grown students. And as a result, you have to be very intentional. But I am really encouraged in some sense by the COVID experience because I think it gave us a reminder that, that’s actually… we can say it is different with transfer students, and yet it is different and the same – All students have their own particulars that come to the table. I think there are patterns that are worth discerning and then exploiting.


[00:34:04] But the reality is every student brings an entire layer of experiences and identities and factors to their educational experience. And so in the spring of 2020, as I was talking to my advisees about the question, in essence, “what is it going to take to get you back to Carleton in the fall?” The key factors were wildly different from one student to the next. They were, what do you know, individual people. And so what it took was intentionality, the willingness to get to know that student, to have a very personal conversation and listen and hear, “okay, what is the issue for you?” And so while in one sense, I think transfer students are different, in another sense it is just a different flavor of the same problem. We have to really be willing to get to know our students and hear, “where is the challenge for you?” And sometimes that is done, as you indicated, by systems.



Grawe: [00:34:57] You can have a data analysis. And if I have enough students, I can listen by listening to survey data. Like if I have a smaller system, I might listen by having an office hours conversation. But either way, really listening to what the students are telling me will be the key to then meeting them where they are at. And and I think even before that, to John’s earlier point about pursuing the student, recognizing that it is our responsibility to do that listening, is maybe an even more important precursor. If you do not see it as my responsibility to figure out, “what is the challenge for these students,” if instead you do that as, “well, that is their problem”, then you are not going to engage in the activities.



Borum: [00:35:37] Especially after this these students are, they have been pursued so heavily to come to your school. Right. We are sending them gift boxes or acceptance, all kinds of touchpoints and working so hard to make/treating them so special, to get them there. And then without thinking about it, we are dumping them in the school, moving on to the next cycle, and they do not get that attention anymore unless you have some type of retention counselor program that is helping them, once they get there, identifying at risk. So, that’s very interesting. I am also curious how, and it will probably be years till we discover this, but there is going to be some kind of impact from COVID on the psychological effect that these students have gone through at school during these years – whether they are the school, the students that are in grade school, and this is what they started as their normal or the ones who finished their junior and senior year under such heavy COVID restrictions, and distance learning. And then you would have to assume that there is going to have to be some difference in the way that they need to be worked with. You know what I mean? That is going to impact somehow, I would think.



Grawe: [00:37:06] Yeah, I think that is such an astute observation. I was talking to a colleague about some of the challenges we have seen in the last, this is about a year ago. So it was in the first year of COVID challenges, not necessarily in the academic side, but maybe in the time management, those kinds of issues. And he said, I just I do not know how much longer is this going to last. But when COVID hit, I had four kids from second grade through 12th grade. And so I saw middle school, high school, elementary school. And I said, well, I think we have got like 15 years of this. Because reality is, as you point out, there are things going on in my second graders educational experience that have left his cohort in some sense stunted. I mean, they just did not have certain experiences.



Grawe: [00:37:53] And and we know the literature on closing educational gaps. It is not like our education system is tremendous. Like, Oh yeah, give us three months. We will close that gap. No, that gap is just going to persist and persist and persist. And I do not know, 10 or 12 years. I will see his cohort [inaudible] Carleton. So we are going to be having to rethink, and I think for me I am having a lot of conversations with colleagues right now. We are trying to figure out what of these effects that we are seeing are temporary because some of them I think, will go away relatively quickly. Which of these are more permanent? Which is then to lead into, “Which parts of my syllabus can I just leave as it is? I am struggling right now with some student behaviors with the existing assignments, but it will work itself out.” Versus “Where do I have to change my syllabus, change the pace that I am doing in this part of the course, change assignment structure, change assignment timing in order to respond to the fact that these students are operating differently?”



Grawe: [00:38:49] And I think that will be part of our collective retention challenge going forward, is figuring out which of these COVID effects are temporary. I think David mentioned the possibility that you can have this temporary shock of COVID that nevertheless kicks off entire trends. I think we are going to have to grapple with that for a long while.



Borum: [00:39:10] That’s right. Well, let me pivot a little bit. In your second book, The Agile College. You mentioned that for educators to distinguish between tactics and strategies, that they first have to face the hard truths. And I was really interested to hear if you could possibly elaborate on that.



Grawe: [00:39:28] Yes, I think I got that largely from John McGee up at St John’s and Saint Ben’s University. Just I think the point of distinguishing between tactics and strategies is making sure that you are not confusing, well obviously, we need good tactics. If you are not going to market in the most, using best practices, you should. So having the right tactics, of course, is important. But often I think we can lose sight of the strategy and we adopt tactics that do not align with what really is our existing strategy. And those almost never work. So I need to recruit these different students. Well, are you preparing to teach those different students? Tapping into their new assets, meeting the new gaps that they might present? If you are not, you might be able to recruit them at least for a while and bring them to the campus, but you would not retain them.



Grawe: [00:40:19] So figuring out, “who are we really, what is our mission?” And from that, “what are the strategies that we are pursuing?” And then from that, “what are the tactics we ought to adopt,” rather than the other way around. Because usually what happens is you just grasp at tactics that do not align and then you fail. As far as the second point about that, then you also have to confront the realities that intersects with the strategy in the sense that if you think, for instance, that we are going to rise up the US News ranks by 25 points in the next five years. I will bet you are not. Right? That does not happen. So being honest about where are we in the market, who are we, in the present who are we?…is sometimes sobering, sometimes especially for alums who might be represented on your board of trustees, have a hard time hearing, we are not the institution that you wish we were. Other people do not perceive us the way we perceive us.



Borum: [00:41:23] And if we recruit based on branding that puts us in that way, we will not be successful.



Grawe: [00:41:30] Exactly. And it is not, it does not have to be. I mean, I think it has both sides. You have to come to terms with sometimes some unpleasant facts. You also have to celebrate what your real strengths are. What are our strengths? What can we bring to market and find a market for it? Once you know who you are, then you can ask, “And where do we need to go?” And you can often figure out a way from here to there. But if you are not willing to confront the realities, and for all of us, that means a declining birthrate. The reality of US higher education right now is not, we are in this wonderful growth period, and that had been the reality from World War II to roughly 2010. So if you would not confront that, “hey, things are a little different right now”, it is going to be very difficult then for you to live in the world that you occupy.



David: [00:42:21] Dr. Grawe, I want to jump in here on that. We talk about the declining birth rate, and that has been something that has been eye opening to many since about your first publication. And I think many individuals that I have spoken with as we speak with universities have come to terms and recognize that they need to start to adapt. Whether that means that they are not investing as extensively in new facilities. I actually do not see that trend. I still see the facilities being built regardless because of competition demands it or whether it means that they are trying to create secondary programs and certificates and other that in essence keep the private industry like the Googles of the world at bay, or whether it means that they are simply having to cut back on faculty and specific areas.



David: [00:43:11] But what I don’t see yet being fully acknowledged and perhaps this is just because we do not know yet, because as higher education professionals, the one trend I see that is common across all is a reliance on data over gut. And so right now the challenge with that is, as we just saw in the fall of 2021, we just saw the first drop where there are still 500,000 fewer students even than was projected without the declining birthrate. I mean, increasingly so. In your mind, is this something that higher education institutions are starting to acknowledge? That there are other factors as well that are really starting to drive the market, more so even than just declining birth rates? Declining birth rates is something we cannot tackle.



Grawe: [00:44:00] Right.



David: [00:44:00] It is just a reality you have to adapt to. But if there is other now data based, metric based proof that the market is starting to perceive higher education differently, is starting to react in a way that we did not foresee. What are your thoughts on timing to recognition and then adaptation by universities towards that?



Grawe: [00:44:26] I think we are seeing some signs that people are taking that seriously. So for instance, some trends I hear people willing to acknowledge. One would be student interest shifting from rural to urban, which of course is challenging for a lot of private liberal arts colleges because they were located in rural areas for historical reasons, many of them religious reasons. But in any case, if students are less inclined to be in a rural area, that is something that you have to contend with. Another story that has been going on for years now, but then only in the past year have I really seen it, acknowledged with some prominence, is the failure of higher education to speak to young men. It was not great when men outnumbered women 60:40 in the 70s, but it is equally not great when we flip the script today.



Grawe: [00:45:19] And there I see people starting to ask, why is it? What is it that keeps men from enrolling? And we see things like the rise of certificates, which is part of a trend that men might be more likely to pursue the certificate instead of traditional educational degrees, but that does not account for all of it. And so trying to figure out how might we reach out to young men in ways that are affordable, reasonable and healthy so that our society ultimately is benefited by that. So I think there is a willingness to talk about some of those other outstanding trends that, frankly, do give us some hope and opportunities. In the 1980’s and 90’s, we had a demographic dip of college age that was the Gen Xers who were not as numerous as the baby boomers. And part of the reason we did not experience an enormous drop in enrollments was because of shift to the non-traditional market. But part of it was also moving toward parity along gender lines. If we could achieve parity by increasing male enrollments to match those of women. My gosh, the demographic shifts would not seem that big at all.



David: [00:46:26] What do you feel like are the few things that universities can do to affect that? Because, as you mentioned, young men not being as interested in higher education because of certificates. I do have one personal story that I can share. A few years ago, I was director of product at a startup in Austin, Texas. And what I can tell you is I know that here in Austin specifically, you do not have to have your undergraduate degree to make six figures. In fact, what we saw, whether it was at our company or many other companies in Austin, is that students with one or two years of education who then decided, “I am done with this, I am going to go get a job and work as a computer programmer and do a bootcamp” within one or two years, by the time they would have finished, they are now at $120 to $140,000 a year as a React engineer because the demand is so high.



David: [00:47:23] A lot of young men are seeing that and with what else has happened from a general publication and marketing and Hollywood standpoint with the social media giants that everyone now likes to idolize, the Elon Musk’s of the world, which so many young men look and say, “Oh, I want to create something like him”, the the leaders of Facebook, the Zuckerberg’s of the world who dropped out.



Grawe: [00:47:45] Right.



David: [00:47:46] What are universities doing, in your mind to attract young men?



Grawe: [00:47:50] So I think that we should not necessarily assume that the tech story that you are talking about, which is very real, is necessarily the norm for all industries. But we should be contemplating whether it applies to more than the tech industry, right? I mean, the place people always go with certificates, replacing education is is coding because you can code or you cannot and you do not need for your degree necessarily to do it. It is not as clear that that necessarily is going to be the story of the future. But there might be other pockets where it becomes an increasingly big story. I see institutions that are trying to appeal to men with affinity groups. Think about adding a ROTC program, for instance, because that might draw in some students who then find their calling and place at the institution. Sometimes that looks like sports teams, though I would say that is a strategy that probably is now pretty dated and not necessarily at the cutting edge.



Grawe: [00:48:47] I think programs matter as well. So there is obviously a fairly substantial decline in two year college enrollments during COVID. The two year sector was by far and away the most affected. Some economists and NBER working paper show account for most of that just by the decline in sort of hands on programs at technical colleges, which kind of makes sense. So we know that these more hands on manufacturing and repair programs are disproportionately chosen by men. And we also know that it is harder to mitigate with social distancing and so on, mitigate a pandemic while maintaining anything like academic quality in that kind of program.



Grawe: [00:49:33] And so, in essence, part of the story there during COVID was that young men in particular dropped out of two year colleges because two year colleges could not offer the kinds of degree programs that those young men were looking to study. And they, we hope, said, I will just wait until the pandemic is over and we do not have to do the social distancing. But there is a bigger point there, right, that some degree programs are more appealing to men than others. And so I think some institutions are intentionally adding degree programs with an eye toward creating academic paths that might be more appealing to men.



Grawe: [00:50:09] I think the certificate program challenge that you identify, if men are more likely to pursue certificates, that does then pose some real challenges for us in higher ed is, either we bring those certificate programs in-house, in which case we can claim that we are educating as many men as women, though they would not be on our campuses nearly as long. Or we might think about how we can do that certificating and then have it lead into other more long programs. And I think there the four year sector can learn from the two year sector because this is not a novel problem.



Grawe: [00:50:44] When writing the book, I talked to some two year institution leaders who talked about rethinking their programs with the adult learner in mind that the adult learner cannot afford. This is somebody who is either looking for a promotion or they just lost their job. They need the credential quickly so that they can get that promotion, get the new job, get back to work supporting their family. They are not there for the associate’s degree, at least not directly. And so sometimes associate degree programs where the curriculum was designed, where you will get the certificate, then after the third class or something like that. The adult learners, no, I am not coming for three semesters. That is crazy. And so they have been as much as possible reconfiguring the curriculum so that some of the key credentials come right away after a single course.



Grawe: [00:51:31] And then that course leads into a range of associate’s degree programs, and they find that they do retain a fair number of adult learners, not in the sense of continuous enrollment through the associate’s degree, but rather intermittent checking in. I just can keep plugging away and eventually do get my associate’s degree. But it was first by listening to the students and saying, What do you need or you need the credential? Well, let us get that credential at the front of the program then so that you get what you need, and then we will try to entice you into the associate’s degree program.



Grawe: [00:52:03] So I think four-years institutions might be thinking more about that with certificating. “Can we offer certificates.” And then think hard about how we structure our programs so that those certificates come early and easy for the student who wants that and needs that, and yet leads naturally into some of our other longer standing degree programs.



David: [00:52:22] That is brilliant. Well, Dr. Grawe, I have to say, we have covered a lot of subjects today. We have talked about student behaviors and patterns. We have talked about the general high level trends of birth rates, but also of the market and reactions to the market. We have talked about intentionality, when we talked about how being intentional as faculty members across the entire institution, not just the administrative side of the House, can improve retention and also therefore improve the entire health of the university and what that might do to the university’s longevity in the market, what that might do from a consolidation standpoint. I think closing it all out here with the final point of also universities as a whole have to be thinking about what is the market asking for today and therefore, how do we drive people forward through that? And that might be stackables. It might be credentials up front and certificates up front that then grow into a lifelong learner.



David: [00:53:12] And I got to say it has been an absolutely insightful conversation. Thank you for your time.



Grawe: [00:53:30] Thank you. Really enjoyed hearing from John and from you, too, David.



David: [00:53:33] Appreciate you.



Borum: [00:53:34] Thank you!

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