A study of West Texas A&M University’s economic impact in 2017-2018 was carried out by Emsi, a labor market analytics firm that has in the last 20 years conducted 2,000 economic impact studies. They are national leaders. WT’s contribution to economic growth was tagged at $747.3 million, as well as 2,276 jobs supported. The total economic value of WT’s contribution to the economies of Canyon, Amarillo and the greater Panhandle was $2.4 billion. Frankly, the size and impact of these numbers are staggering to me. But, the experts stand by them. To sustain these contributions, the communities and WT must work together to sustain and increase WT’s on-campus enrollment to benefit both the institution and the surrounding communities. A marriage founded for genuine prosperity.
Decreases in enrollment challenge universities across the nation. The number of college-ready high school graduates is decreasing. Enrollment guru David Strauss says it’s a triple whammy:
The first whammy is that the number of students graduating from high school is down and has been going down for quite some time in most areas of the country. The double whammy is college-going rates: If the percentages decrease, the pool shrinks even more. And the triple whammy is the things that have been knocked off track by the pandemic, or have caused people to think of alternatives because of the pandemic.
Birth rates in the United States have dried up, according to The Conversation. In 1970, 2.48 children per woman came to life. In 2020, 1.64 were born. Fewer kids, lower enrollment. Moreover, starting salaries for high school graduates in jobs that do not require postsecondary education are increasing dramatically. At Target in Texas, the average starting salary for a warehouse worker is nearly $40,000 per year. Prima facie is an attractive income for an 18-year-old high school graduate that may diminish the likelihood of attending college.
Many of the major state universities in our nation are increasing their size and attracting a growing number of students. The numerous benefits and opportunities in the classroom and through extracurricular engagement at the largest universities are nearly mind-boggling. For smaller regional public universities like WT, this requires a heightened sense of urgency about enrollment. Recruiting and retaining students and creating enrollment through engaging study and living opportunities is everybody’s business. But it is more than that.
If a campus employee sees a student or family gathered around a campus map to figure out where they are in an unfamiliar place, that employee should ask if they can assist. It’s a common courtesy. It creates a sense of community. If a faculty member or the university president sees a piece of paper on the sidewalk, a scrap, and does not pick it up and put it in the trash, they contribute to enrollment decline. I hold myself to these expectations. It expresses community stewardship that seems to wane on the square in Canyon, downtown in Amarillo or roadside on the way to Perryton. Stewardship inevitably produces pride.
Pride enhances the connections at every level of university and community life and focuses on the day-to-day needs of all. Why would anyone want to study, live or conduct business in a place that appeared apathetic to itself? Or that citizenship and a sense of belonging to an engaged community are unimportant. Indifference is the vilest form of neglect. Neglect chokes economic growth. Enrollment decreases follow and are a detriment to a thriving economy. Academic mission and educational excellence evaporate.
Larger institutions may provide more personnel to pick up scraps of paper, provide directions to people on the campus or hire more professionals to market and purposefully extol institutional benefit. However, these are not always as powerful or attractive as members of a community who have a sense of urgency about serving others. The people that live, work and study here matter. Such a perspective is easier to talk about than attain. It requires a sense of urgency—the importance and power of the everyday. And the great benefit of a smaller, regionally focused institution is that it can become part of a community. And by definition community is a group of generally like-minded people who commit themselves to certain actions. A campus and community that does not commit to such principles will falter. It will eventually fail in the contemporary marketplace of higher education, driven by the simple and persistent arithmetic described above.
When the sense of urgency increases, aspirations and commitments given life through thinking and action will increase, as will desirability and institutional success despite real and relentless realities. Communities will prosper. Enrollment will grow. More people will be well served.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.