Fall is a beautiful time to be on campus. The weather is cooler, the leaves are changing colors, football season is here, students are back, and our universities are bustling with activity, excitement, and possibility. It’s also the time of year that enrollment is at the forefront of regents’ thoughts. Overall, enrollment trends in the Regional University System of Oklahoma (RUSO) system are recovering from the difficult pandemic years. But compared to the Oklahoma flagships, with enrollments exceeding 25,000, RUSO institutions can seem like underdogs. Should students choose to attend big universities or smaller universities? What do RUSO universities offer that make them a great choice for many students?
In my fifteen years as a RUSO regent, I have heard from students, faculty, and staff about how our universities are especially adept at meeting students where they are. Students feel welcomed and comfortable at our universities because they have the support that comes from a caring community and close friendships with teaching faculty, staff, and fellow students. Check out the stories of our graduates who consistently report that they were willing to take on new challenges and experiment with new ideas because our professors encourage innovation and individuality. RUSO universities enrich the lives of our students, preparing them to be hardworking, well-trained, and ambitious members of the workforce. We support and encourage students, while providing a high-quality education at an affordable price.
A recent UCLA study found that nearly 60% of university students across the country who start out in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs drop out after their first or second year. The loss of these students has created a drastic shortage of American-educated scientists and engineers. In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that it may not be the difficult coursework as much as the difficult environment that leads to students dropping out of STEM majors. In education, it’s referred to as the “Big Fish Little Pond Effect.” The more that an institution exhibits an aggressive, comparison-based, and elitist atmosphere, the worse students feel about their academic abilities. Students in this environment can feel demoralized and inferior. In reality, academic achievement is like a muscle that can be flexed and developed over time if you persevere. The support that a university provides to students shapes their willingness and their ability to tackle challenges and finish difficult tasks. According to Gladwell, it’s a crucial element in their motivation and confidence.
Potentially compounding the drop out problem is the increasing use of Holistic Admissions Standards. Some universities’ admissions departments forgo reviewing GPAs or standardized test scores before admitting some first-time freshmen. Holistic standards have been in place for years, but some institutions are increasing their use of this method to accept many students who would not qualify through traditional academic standards. RUSO institutions have academic admission standards in place to ensure that our students are prepared to succeed. A future increase in holistic admissions by RUSO may be warranted, but it will need to be accompanied by processes that prepare students for college-level academic success.
Ultimately, widespread use of holistic admissions standards without holistic support harms students. Changing standards to accept more students without putting in place methods to ensure those students’ successful transition to university life leads to an even higher risk of students falling short of their goals.
RUSO institutions have taken the opposite approach to changing their admission standards. We have created holistic and proactive support systems which set our universities apart and makes them great places for students to succeed. For those who need extra family support or the convenience of living close to home, RUSO universities, branches and satellite campuses are located across the state. For students who are returning to higher education after a break, flexible schedules and class times make it easier to complete a degree. Our degree offerings complement the careers of working students and provide a leg up for those entering the workforce for the first time.
I am proud of the programming and new initiatives at our universities that have been designed to support our students holistically, understanding that all students come to the university with a history and a life outside of their education. At Northeastern State University’s Broken Arrow campus, a new drop-in, after-hours childcare center assists caregivers pursuing a degree in the evenings. A housing incentive program from East Central University lowers commuting costs for students. University of Central Oklahoma recently announced a partnership with a metro community college to make transferring for a bachelor’s degree simpler. Southwestern Oklahoma State University has partnerships with technology centers to accelerate student progress on degrees such as nursing and allied health. Southeastern Oklahoma State University has adopted a “Student Ready University” initiative to ensure that the university is ready to facilitate the success of students with differing needs based on their background and preparedness for college. Northwestern Oklahoma State University hosts special events where students and families can “shop for tuition” involving scholarship opportunities.
And the payoff for our state is great. Nearly 84% of RUSO graduates stay and are employed in Oklahoma five years after graduation. We care about enrollment, but we also care that the students we enroll are given the support they need. Today’s RUSO students are tomorrow’s Oklahoma workforce. They deserve to have the tools they need for the best opportunities to persevere and succeed.