Dr. Pamela Gunter-Smith: ‘York is a wonderful hidden gem. We’ve got to stop being so hidden.’
By Sarah Smith
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories on York College and some of the key issues it faces moving forward.
York College has been a fixture in the York community since 1787, but like other colleges across the country, it has been affected by a decrease in enrollment rates. Since York is also a small private college, it also faces a unique set of challenges. Here’s what Dr. Pamela Gunter-Smith, who took over as college president in July 2013, had to say recently when asked a variety of questions about this topic.
Q, Enrollment is an issue affecting many colleges, not just YCP, especially during the pandemic. How much has enrollment fallen during COVID?
A, I would say our enrollment has fallen between 10 and 15 percent, especially for fall 2021. I actually anticipated a big drop in the fall of 2020. You know we sent everyone home, and then we made the plans to bring you all back, and I had thought that would be the major time we would have a big fall. And we kind of came out OK for that. But, it wasn’t a normal type of experience, I think, for students, and we had for the fall of ’21 a bigger drop in enrollment. And I was a little surprised by that, I could kind of see it coming as we were tracking it, but my initial thoughts were we did such a good job of getting through 2021 it should give people some comfort in knowing we would be able to take care of things.
And it’s not just us, mostly schools in this area, especially smaller schools. Big state schools did OK, and I think it has to do with the uncertainty, still, wondering what it’s going to be like, people not feeling secure. The other thing we did was that last year, we had remote learners, because we also were doing that Hy-Flex model, but this year with everyone fully back we don’t have fully remote learners. You’re either in, or you’re not in. And one of the things that we did is that we don’t have a vaccination mandate, but still feel that with the major deterrent we have, of course, is wearing a mask and things like that. So, that’s a long answer to a short question, but it’s very complicated. So, I think that just the uncertainty, the fact that some people still wanted to remote and we’re not remote, and it is a national trend. I think that all of that contributed to the big decline in enrollment we saw this year.
One of the other things that we know that is not necessarily well-known but when people come on our campus they fall in love with it. And that’s a big piece of our recruitment. Last year we didn’t have any in-person visits, and so I think that also did not help us. So you take that with the uncertainty, the fact that we didn’t bring people on campus, and the overall national landscape and that we didn’t have remote, and I think that all contributed to the decline this year.
Q, What is a comfortable enrollment size for YCP, and what does the school have to do to get to and stay at that number?
A, So I will say that we can easily support 4,000 to 4500 students. And, one of the things I talk about a lot is the need to diversify our student base. So, at least on campus and what have you, we can probably accommodate that. But we are also reaching out to diversify our student base, so we now have online programs. So we have a lot of online programs in nursing, we have a lot of online programs in data analytics. We have more programs that will be coming. We have graduate programs, we have it in Education, we have it in Business. And we have been primarily an undergraduate institution, but given the shift in demographics and what have you, I think we also have to look at diversifying and looking at adult programs as well that fit our niche.
So, we all work in our strategic plan 2.0. And so within that plan, we’re currently talking about that [how to stay at the optimal enrollment level]. So one is, York is a wonderful hidden gem. We’ve got to stop being so hidden. So we’re doing more with respect to marketing the institution and who we are, and remaining true to our brand. So that’s one of the things we need to grow enrollment. And we have always had an eye toward affordability. Higher education is a major investment, but we always try to make it as affordable as possible and to make this a meaningful experience for our students. I think that we need to talk a lot more about career readiness, and that can mean different things that when students leave here that they’re going to be ready for what I call lifetime or meaningful careers. Because we know what’s coming forward is that not necessarily what you know. It’s what you can create with what you know. And so we have to continue to be abreast of that. So those are some things we think about. We’re constantly looking at our offerings and what programs do we have. We’re always exploring. I talked about adult students, international students, degree completion students, and students within our own backyard. And looking at new markets that are domestic markets. So we have students now in Virginia, we have students coming from North Carolina. So we have meat and gravy students who are in a hundred miles but we also have to look beyond that.
Q, There was a meeting with faculty on Oct. 28. Were there a couple of key points you would care to share that were made during that meeting?
A, Well, I think the key points are how are we going to move forward as a community, working with faculty and administration, and how do we prepare for the present, and how do we prepare for the future? As president, I have to do both. And as a president, not only do I have to attend to the present needs of the institutional students but I have to constantly look ahead. And so those are the things we talk about, how do we improve communication around that, what kind of directions we should go in. But it’s more about, rather than the nuts and bolts, more about communication. I talk about the why and the what, letting people know not only what it is that we’re doing but the why is also important.
One of things I will say that is clearly affirmed was that all of us have the students’ best interests at heart. And so that is the number one priority. How do we help students finish on time? How do we help them find their way? All of those are important.
Q, Do lower enrollment numbers lower the number of classes that are offered at an already small college like York?
A, So what I will say is that of course it has an impact but not in the way I think that was discussed. I would say that we have added classes, added programs, [we’ve added many programs since I’ve been here], but we’ve not taken anything away. And so how do you continue to add and to add and to add without looking carefully at what you’re doing? So we’re doing I think what is very smart, and that is that we are looking to see how we can be more efficient, but as an institution still deliver the programs that our students came here for. So we have a lot of classes that are under-enrolled, and they had been under-enrolled previously. So one of things I always say is really frustrating for students, and I have an email from a student now, is that when you come and think you’re taking one class only to find out that class has been cancelled. It’s always happened. So, I think that what we have to do is be more intentional about what we’re offering and how we use our resources in that way.
Q, So you touched previously on how many students have had classes they need for their majors cancelled, and they’ve had to take a class in its place that’s sometimes not related to the class they were originally supposed to do. Do you have any feelings on how that impacts a student’s major or education in any way?
A, So what I will say is a couple of things. First of all, if there is a course that is substituted, it is reviewed. The purpose of a curriculum, each class, each course should have a set of what we call learning outcomes. That is, what is the objective the instructor of the program has for you to accomplish? A lot of courses build upon one another. And so, there are multiple ways of meeting those learning objectives. So if there is a course that is cancelled and a course that is substituted, then the primary concern is that it meets the learning objectives of the program, and doesn’t penalize the student in a way that will prevent them from being successful. So if a substitution is put in, it’s done with that. It’s not just take this course, take that course. It should all be based on what was the original learning outcome, and how that’s going to happen. We also belong to a number of consortia that offer some online courses, so we can do that. If it’s going to mean that a student cannot graduate, and there’s no substitution or what have you, then accommodations are made for that student.
So, I know that there are courses every year that are cancelled. It’s been that way since I’ve been here, and we’re trying to do a better job of predicting what students are going to need and when they’ll need it so we can do a better job of scheduling classes. So we have a new product that’s coming up called Degree Planner that advisers and students will be able to use. So, for example, if you have your schedule all set and you have it all plugged in, you can monitor it yourself. And if something happens, it’ll tell you, take this or take this. You can rearrange your schedule. Thus far, we have not eliminated any programs or majors here. But what we have done is look carefully at the curriculum and ask the question: Do you need to have five different courses that all provide the same learning outcome in a major? The answer, probably, is no. And so, how do we streamline that?
Q, Do you feel, as a small college, more emphasis is placed on “flagship” majors, for example, like Engineering and Nursing, or do you feel differently?
A, That’s difficult for me to think about. I’m going to say in some ways, yes, but no. And let me tell you why I say in some ways yes. One of our biggest majors that draws our students is Nursing. Therefore, since there are a lot of students there, one could say it draws a lot of attention, right? Then we have Engineering as another one of those. But we also have a very fine Professional Writing program that gets a lot of attention, we have a very fine Graphic Arts program. We have a lot of programs. What we do is we look across all of our offerings and we support them in the way that they need to be supported and provide resources for them. Some programs are accredited, and so they have to have a certain number of faculty or a certain number of courses, in a sequence. Nursing is one of them. Engineering is one of them. Music, actually, is like that. Outside accreditors kind of govern what you need to have, to have that program be successful. But I would say we support all of the programs here, but some of them have more students in them than others, and some of them have accreditation, things that have to be met. One of the neat things about a school like York is that we can have a variety. But we have to look carefully to ask ourselves: Do we have the resources to support them? And we’ve grown, a lot. But what we have done is students have shifted, not necessarily more students.
Q, What are a couple things you’re proud of in terms of your leadership, not even counting COVID?
A, Well I’m very proud of where we sit with COVID, because, I’ll just say, the York County positivity rate is 15 percent, we’re about 2 percent-ish, so we’re doing extremely well because our students are doing a good job. So, I would say there are a couple things I’m very proud of. First, I’m always proud of our students, and what they do. We’re a very student-centered campus, and I’m a very student-centered person. But, we also have two downtown properties: The Center for Community Engagement, and Marketview Arts. I’m very proud of those two places because they’re physical spaces in downtown and that we’ve been able to renew our commitment to this community, to the York Community. We’ve been here since 1787, over 200 years. We are York’s educational institution. So I’m very proud of the partnerships we’ve made, with respect to the Center for Community Engagement, in the way that it not only serves the community but it provides learning opportunities for our students. So we have community-based learning courses, we have a Master’s of Public Policy, we have the Institute for Social Healing, a variety of programs that directly impact the community, that give our students experiences outside of the classroom. Marketview Arts supports the arts, it is kind of cultural place. It’s across from the White Rose. I call the CCE, or the Center for Community Engagement, it’s in downtown [in kind of the business, the courthouses are down there and all] and Marketview Arts is the funky, kind of artsy district of York. But I think that it provides opportunities for our students, to have studios, and faculty, as well as local artists, and really to bring cultural events to the city.
I’m very proud, and I’m also very proud of, and will be proud of the work that we’re doing for the Knowledge Park, for two reasons. First of all, the Knowledge Park is a component of what we call the Graham Center for Collaborative Innovation. It has three parts to it: It has the Knowledge Park, it has the Engaged Scholars Program, which is like our honors program, and it has the Center for Academic Innovation. I believe that it is really going to be a mark of distinction for York College. There are not many places that have what we have and have the ability to do that. We have raised considerable funding for it, but specifically, the Knowledge Park will be an open laboratory. And you can think of it as a private, nonprofit partnership where we’re the nonprofit agency, and then we will have businesses and maybe some other nonprofits, who will come and rent space in the Knowledge Park, and provide co-ops, and internships, and project-based learning for our students. And at the same time, it is going to bring new industry to the York community. It will hopefully, the first part of it, will open this spring, and I’m just really proud of the way it’s coming together, and it’s going to be something that is very distinctive for York College for our future. So those are two of the major things that I think of. And there are others. I think the other thing is that we launched our first comprehensive campaign to support college initiatives, and it’s been very, very successful. So we have funds for scholarships, for the Knowledge Park, and for athletics, and it shows great confidence that people outside of the college have in York College.
Q, Final thoughts about enrollment?
A, I think we’re working very hard to improve upon enrollment. I think that all institutions, especially now, have to take stock of things. What enrollment should we have? I think that we should have a student body of 4,000+ students. Realize that we are tuition-dependent. It’s how we pay our bills, it’s how we keep our lights on. We don’t get state support, like Penn State or the PASSHE system, and by the way, if you look at what’s happening in the PASSHE system, Kutztown, California University of PA, the PASSHE system, they have consolidated a lot of their campuses. And so we’re all feeling that kind of shift in the demographics of the world. And we all have to manage our resources effectively. So, for me, rather than accepting a lower enrollment, I feel that we have the capacity to increase our enrollments. It will take us a little time, but also understand we also have to look at new markets, the adult markets. Doing online, just for adults, not for undergraduates, but other programs and online programs that will attract that market as well.
Sarah Smith is a senior Professional Writing student at York College of Pennsylvania. In addition to writing for the Spartan, she is also an assistant online editor for the York Review, and you can find her at one of her three jobs around campus.