TargetX Summit 2017 Leadership panel

The second day of the 2017 TargetX Summit featured a Leadership Panel of higher education experts moderated by Scott Jaschik, the editor and CEO of Inside Higher Ed. The panel was entitled “Hell No to the Status Quo: Meeting the Current Challenges in Higher Education” and addressed the tough challenges faced by higher education leaders. The panel included:

  • David Burge, Vice President for Enrollment Management, George Mason University
  • Jay Murray, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Services, Western Connecticut State University
  • Cindy Haney, Vice President of Enrollment Management, Lehigh Carbon Community College
  • Jeff Kallay, CEO of Render Experiences

*The following is edited for clarity and brevity. To see the full conversation and to hear audience questions, visit

The great irony is that higher education journalism would tell you that the big story is how difficult it is to be accepted to the likes of Stanford, but for the majority of higher education, schools are scrambling for students. What are your current challenges?

David: Our challenge is getting the right mix of tuition-paying students and not, and trying to balance against the state funding differences across state institutions. We are trying to wrestle with how to stay affordable for our in-state population where we believe access lives, while expanding our brand identity.

Jay: Our challenge is fighting the erosion population in Connecticut and New England. Funding resources are also becoming more constrained because we are competing with 17 other in-state institutions, not to mention privates.

We have been writing about community colleges struggling with enrollment. Cindy, you are bucking the trend. How does enrollment look for you?

Cindy: Our peak enrollment was in 2009-10. We had about 11,000 students. In 2016, we were about 2,000 less. We have seen a slight increase in our spring enrollment, but being a community college, my enrollment is a bit of a moving target. An additional challenge is that we have competition from not only all of the colleges in our region, but also employers like Amazon where you can start for $20 an hour and get full benefits.

If I am tempted by the Amazon job, why should I enroll with you instead?

Cindy: We have a robust dual enrollment program. We have a student who was accepted to multiple Ivy Leagues and ultimately went to Stanford. Also, I remind students that over their lifetime, they are going to make more money with a degree.

Jeff, what trends are you seeing on the private side?

Jeff: Smaller liberal arts colleges in rural areas are struggling to scale to urban or suburbans. I say give everyone an Amazon Prime account. Instead, their post offices look like 1980s Soviet Union. Discount rates are a challenge as well; I have a school with a 72 percent discount rate.

All the surveys we see show that traditional age students want urban or metro areas. On the discount rate, the fear I hear from presidents is that if we cut back on merit aid, we will lose the high GPA students and our rankings will go down. Are they right?

Jeff: I think you have to look at graduation rates and best-fit students. If you can get away from the ego of ranking and GPA and focus on the best-fit student, in the long run, it will pay dividends.

I agree, but how well will it play with presidents and boards of trustees?

Jeff: I hear it less with the rankings. I hear we want more, brighter students with full pay. Financial realities are coming in more.

David: I think it depends on the individual mission of the school. Some presidents will say they want to be ranked. Others will want it and not say it out loud. One of the things about Mason is that it’s about outcomes; it’s about getting x amount of career-ready graduates and how you produce that.

Jeff:  I think Boomer parents wanted the rankings because they wanted their special millennial child to be all the more special. While Gen X parents want outcomes and to know cost. So, some leaders are out of touch with their new audience.

Partial elements of the travel ban were recently upheld by the Supreme Court and the U.S. has received a lot of negative publicity around the world. How do you think this will affect the international student population here in the U.S.?

Jeff: There is a lot of concern about this. Schools are getting a lot of questions about this from international students wondering if the climate will be hostile. People are concerned that America is closing its doors and it is not safe.

A student from China is currently missing in Illinois.

David: Imagine your office writing that story. The moment you hit send on that, our enrollment offices are getting that article forwarded. Hair on fire. I spend a lot of time educating people on my campus about that international enrollment structure. What we are seeing is more stress in the undergraduate space, but the international graduate student space is currently solid.

Jay: We have seen more anxiety from our students to study abroad and clumping in very specific countries. For example, they feel like Australia sounds good.

Many people are concerned that we are paying less attention to higher education reaching everybody. Are you worried about this?

Cindy: We pay a lot of attention to diversity and build it into our enrollment management plan. We are about 19.9 percent Hispanic-serving, and would like to be at 25 percent. Allentown is about 22 percent. We provide support services and work with families. You mentioned international students. We provide cultural competency training for our employees so our international students feel welcomed.

Jeff: I am a capitalist and it is a pure numbers game. The market is going to be majority-minority in 2030. Boards and presidents need to figure that out and how to serve that market. I don’t think we have wrapped our head around what diversity is. There are all kinds of diversity: economic, regional, religious, sexuality, gender. I think we have to have a broader and more robust understanding of diversity beyond race.

David: We don’t talk about the rural poor enough. I feel like it’s missing in the national dialogue. Diversity takes all forms. Each institution will have its own challenges in diversity depending on where they are.