OPINION: Selling WKU short: The Hill’s enrollment and image problem

Erick Murrer, opinion columnist for the College Heights Herald

Erick Murrer


WKU administrators have an enrollment crisis on their hands. With international student enrollment on the decline and overall enrollment stagnant, WKU is left with a $15 million-dollar budget shortfall.

But WKU is not alone in its faltering enrollment, as national enrollment figures for post-secondary educational institutions are also on the decline. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, overall post-secondary education enrollment fell by 7.9 percent between 2014 and 2017.

68 percent of chief business officers of colleges and universities named price sensitivity as a leading culprit for declining enrollment. As wages remain stagnant, and university tuition costs continue to increase, many prospective students wonder if a college degree is still worth the ever-increasing cost.

The college wage premium, the advantage of having a degree, has been touted by educators as one of the most convincing reasons to obtain a college degree. And they’re right about its value. New York Fed researchers still hold that college graduates retain a one million-dollar lifetime earnings advantage over those who forwent a college degree. Investing in one’s education is surely worth the cost – a salient point for increasing university enrollment writ large.

After the Board of Regents meeting on Oct. 27, President Caboni exclaimed, “[WKU does] a terrific job articulating the rational drivers for why folks should come to Western Kentucky University.” However, Caboni pointed out that the university needs to work on improving retention rates as well as making a stronger “emotional connection” with students. I fundamentally agree with President Caboni – WKU is failing to make an emotional appeal to convince students “Why WKU?”

WKU’s enrollment strategy must recognize the decline of Kentucky high school graduates. According to a study conducted by the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, Kentucky has witnessed a decline of total high school graduates from five percent to 15 percent between the years 2008 and 2020. WKU cannot afford to appeal only to Kentucky high school graduates because there are simply not enough.

I see WKU’s 94 percent acceptance rate as an attempt to increase enrollment. The lax standard significantly drives retention issues at WKU. Admitting students from subpar academic backgrounds who may be at higher risk of dropping out not only hurts the integrity of WKU, but also incurs significant costs for the Commonwealth. Making WKU an attractive institution will not take place unless the university increases its selectivity.

WKU graduates go on to win Pulitzer prizes, publish ground-breaking research, attend Ivy League schools and perform on Broadway. The case for attending WKU is clear: WKU’s educational quality is relatively comparable to elite universities but at a fraction of the price. Even so, the lack of admissions selectivity at WKU prohibits the university from fully commanding a “top American university” status.

Faced with a national university enrollment slump compounded by a declining rate of Kentucky high school graduates, WKU must rebrand itself and work diligently to refine its academic reputation by heavily investing in its academic programs and faculty. Campus expansion and revitalization projects should come second.

Only by improving WKU’s academic quality will the university be able to attract more domestic and international students, preserving our credo “the Spirit Makes the Master.” WKU can no longer afford to sacrifice its academic quality.