Utah’s dashboard targets enrollment, focusing on students first

The university's Sorenson Impact Center says 'rightsizing', not downsizing. is key to ensuring their future. It is looking for partners on its MAPS Project to help in this mission.
By: | February 5, 2021
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The stories of futility are heart wrenching. A student with one semester to go can’t complete her studies because of financial concerns. A student who has built a community on campus is unsure whether he will be able to afford housing or whether his institution will deliver on its promise of virtual instruction.

As the Sorenson Impact Center at the University of Utah notes, these are not “outliers”. These are the plights of millions of students whose lives have been altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some more than others, like the student who came to the U.S. from the Democratic Republic of Congo with very little, earned her way into college but as a senior is now concerned for her future.

This academic “think-and-do-tank” has been working to address those marginalized voices while providing data that can help higher education better meet their needs. Its MAPS Project (Model, Analyze, Prototype, and Share) is not only relaying their stories, but attempting to solidify their future successes.

So it is asking institutions of higher education to look at the data on its MAPS Data Dashboard – budgets, mergers and closures, and the impacts of COVID-19 on higher education – and help in this collaborative research effort that has been fueled by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Over the last two years we’ve convened a working group of experts three times to explore the implications of changing higher ed enrollment, but instead of solely focusing on what enrollment decline means for institutions — like closures and mergers — we also wanted to know what it means for students, whether they’re at an institution at risk of closure or, more likely, an institution struggling because of diminishing tuition-dependent spending,” said Sreeja Nair, Manager of Data, Policy and Performance Innovation at the Sorenson Impact Center.

“We’re still exploring how the higher ed landscape could be more equitable and student-centric. If that interests you, get in touch. We want a clearer picture of the issues along with better data and recommendations for decision-makers in government and IHEs.”

Nair said the Sorenson Center initiative culled data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, the American Community Survey, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Labor Statistics to help get its project going. The dashboard started tracking state budgets and used the State Higher Education Finance (SHEF) Report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) and Grapevine

One of the red flags they’ve foreseen is the waning revenue institutions will receive from state governments this year. Beyond how they manage potential shortfalls will be how they can still deliver the same high-quality education and experience to students during and beyond this crisis.

As institutions explore next steps and the challenges that face them, there is a deep concern for those who may be displaced in the process, especially in a pandemic.

Reseachers at the Sorenson Center say, “Instead of downsizing, an institution should focus on rightsizing,” that is prioritizing both institution needs and student needs and not one or the other.

According to its data, 296 institutions chose to focus on short-term solutions (deferring infrastructure improvements, reducing operational spending, freezing promotions and salaries and reducing hiring and staff) while 187 chose longer-term measures (reducing athletic spending, institution staff, academic departments and faculty) in 2020.

What about students?

However higher education leaders choose to keep their institutions running, students must not be brushed aside in those decisions. In surveys gleaned by researchers from around the nation, they highlighted several areas of concern that colleges should be tracking:

  • Physical health, especially students from low-income backgrounds and women, who expressed concern during the pandemic.
  • Financial considerations, particularly affordability for Latinx/Hispanic and Black students. Also looking at the value of your institution’s offerings for students with disabilities.
  • Closely monitoring COVID-19 and how that is affecting students’ decision-making. It is important to gauge their feelings through surveys and provide wraparound supports when possible.
  • A lack of communication and messaging through proper channels can really distance students, especially those that are struggling financially or personally. Regularly promote services that are available to them.
  • Don’t discount mental health options. Just because your institution has opened back up and conducting classes, in person or in hybrid models, doesn’t mean students are feeling comfortable. Many need support and need to know where they can get it.