Education Futures Podcast 34: Dr. Karen Ferguson, Salem University

by | Dec 16, 2021 | Education Futures Podcast

Education Futures Podcast 34: Dr. Karen Ferguson, Provost & VP of Enrollment, Salem University

Dr. Karen Ferguson understands non-traditional students because she was one.

Now the Provost and VP of Enrollment for Salem University, Dr. Ferguson fell through the cracks in her large high school. Though a straight-A student, her parents hadn’t been to college and she didn’t get the guidance from the school on how and when to apply. When she graduated, she found out she was too late.

“I joke that I didn’t go to college because I simply didn’t know how,” Dr. Ferguson said. “I got to the end of my senior year and thought, ‘Well, now is when I apply.’ Lo and behold it wasn’t. I kind of missed the boat on that.”

Meeting Students Where They Are

After a short time in community college, Dr. Ferguson decided to join the military where she took college courses on every military base where she was stationed. Taking whatever courses were offered, she graduated with 140 credits, 20 more than she needed for a bachelor’s degree.

“I just knew I needed a college degree. I knew I wanted to study,” she said. “I knew I liked school, but I never sat down with anyone and had that academic plan. I think for me, that’s why a lot of my career has been focused on supporting non-traditional students and talking about what does access mean.”

Access is more than just getting students to campus. It’s creating a sense of belonging, which many non-traditional students may not get in a traditional campus environment. It’s also meeting them where they are, and creating online learning experiences that enable students to manage multiple priorities.

At Salem University, they are looking at the changes in the economy and how it’s affecting their rural neighbors, such as preparing students for remote work and remote learning.

“What are those career fields and those job fields where you don’t have to travel to work?” Dr. Ferguson said. “And also the same thing with our programs. How do we put our programs together in such a way that the student doesn’t have to travel 75 miles to go to school? If there has been an economic impact at home, can they stay home, can they work part-time, can they help the family and still go to college and achieve their goals as well? So I think it’s really about understanding those student needs and us working together with industry, with the K-12 schools.”

Exposing Students To Success

Salem University partnered with TEL Education earlier this year to provide more options for students across West Virginia, especially those in rural areas. According to Dr. Ferguson, more than 89% of West Virginia high school students graduate from high school and 70% of high school students are college ready. Often, it’s a matter of showing students they can do it.

“We talk a lot about grit in higher education. Grit only goes so far if you’ve never experienced success and grit only goes so far if you have no idea what to do next,” Dr. Ferguson said. “What this partnership does is it teaches them what to do next. It gives them confidence.”

When students have successfully completed a college-level course, some elements are familiar. That experience makes the next college-level course a little less intimidating.

“The beauty of this program is that a lot of those behaviors that are required for student success are embedded in the model,” she said. “We’re modeling those types of things for students throughout the experience.”

Listen to the full conversation or subscribe to our podcast to hear all our interviews with educational leaders.

Full Transcript

Dr. Rob Reynolds:

Hello, everyone and greetings. My name’s Rob Reynolds. I’m the Executive Director at TEL Education and we’re here for another podcast. And I’m really delighted today to be joined by Dr. Karen Ferguson who is the Provost and Vice President for Enrollment at Salem University in West Virginia. And we’re going to learn some things about Salem, about West Virginia, about Karen’s trajectory and how she got here. And it should all be a lot of fun and exciting, and probably a lot of new information for those of you listening.

So Karen let’s get started and welcome, by the way. And I want to kind of kick it off by saying, by kind of asking how does one get to where you are? I mean, for those who aren’t part of academia, you don’t just start out saying, “Boy, when I grew up one day I’m going to be the provost at something.” That’s kind of something you get to so. Tell us a little bit about your trajectory professional and academic and educational, and some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way.

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

Absolutely, Rob. And first of all, thank you for having me, and thank you so much for the partnership that we have. I think it’s been outstanding and I’m just really looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish together. You’re right. In fact, when I think about the title of provost, most people don’t know what that means. And if you look it up, it goes back to being kind of tied to being a warden at a jail a long, long time ago. So yeah, I can’t say that when I was six and someone asked me what I was dreaming of being when I grew up that the word provost came to mind. And honestly, my educational journey wasn’t a straight one either. And neither has been my career journey.

I think there are those people in the world that know exactly what they want to do from a very early age and figure out what that path is going to look like and go straight there. And then I think there’s the majority of the rest of us that kind of figure it out along the way, we know what we like, we gain some experience, and we kind of hone in on what that vision might be for ourselves. And that’s definitely the more scenic byway path that I took for myself.

You know when it comes to my education, I’m very much a non-traditional student. I joke around that I didn’t go to college because I simply didn’t know how. It wasn’t because my parents didn’t support me. They wanted me to go to college, but they didn’t go to college so they didn’t necessarily understand the landscape. They didn’t understand all of the things that they should have been coaching me to do. And I was busy going to school and being in band and running track. And it never dawned on me that I should apply to college.

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

In an entire year before it was supposed to start, I went to a very large high school and I think I just kind of got caught up in the mix. Overall, I was performing well in school, but that didn’t mean that I knew how to go to college. So I just got through the end of my senior year and thought, “Well, now’s when I apply.” And lo and behold, it wasn’t. I kind of missed the boat on that. I had no idea how to pay for it because again, my parents were very supportive and wanted me to go to college and neither one of them did and they expected me to, but we never had any conversations about how you pay for something like that.

And we don’t come from a whole lot as a family. So there wasn’t this huge life savings that could then be gifted towards college. I didn’t know about federal financial aid. I didn’t know about the Pell Grant. I didn’t know about all the things that I probably would’ve qualified for. And you know quite frankly for me too I also wanted to be very independent. I didn’t want to rely on my parents. So I made plans shortly before graduating high school to join the military.

My parents then asked me not to do that and at least try community college. My community college experience was like a lot of people’s community college experience. Community colleges served a very important mission and I know that at now. As a community college student, I would say it was difficult to balance going to school, going to work, paying rent, all of those things, adulting, being 18, and choosing school over work or fun with my friends.

So like many community college students straight out of high school, I struggled with those priorities and finally went back to my parents and said, “Look, this is really what I want to do. I want to join the military. I’m not doing great at college right now. I don’t even really know what I want to study.” So I did that path and then I took classes at every base I was at. I didn’t always know. I just took whatever classes were offered. And again, it gets back to that. And this is one of the things as we talk about like the future of higher education and the things that we need to do to support students. I just knew I needed a college degree. I knew I wanted to study. I knew I liked school.

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

So I just took classes all along the way. And I graduated with my bachelor’s degree with 140 credits. I don’t need 140 credits. I never sat down with anyone who had that academic plan. And I think for me, that’s why a lot of my career has been focused on supporting non-traditional students and really talking about what does access mean? We talk about access very much in this way of how do we get students to come to the universities? How do we provide that opportunity for them?

But there’s a lot more to access than just can we get them there. You have to understand the system. You have to know how to apply. It’s not enough just to get them through the door. Access truly means that we’re helping them, educating them on everything that we need to know and do along the way to actually finish in a timely manner and not waste our time taking classes that we don’t need to take. And at the same time having the opportunity to explore what we’re interested in and being passionate.

Dr. Rob Reynolds:

Yeah. One of the things you’re saying, Karen that really resonates with me so strongly is this idea that in the early ’70s, we kind of defaulted to everybody needs to have a bachelor’s degree to get into business. And there are a lot of historical reasons how we made that shift. But today you look at the average student and this can be the student who’s from a suburb, both parents are professionals, they’re fairly affluent. They’ve all been to college, have multiple degrees, the complexities of that next step even for those kids.

You’ll look at a university catalog, their [inaudible 00:07:00] 400 degrees. If you were here in Norman, Oklahoma, you looked at the University of Oklahoma, I don’t know how you wade through that. And all you have in mind, probably as a high school kid is one of about five or six professional degrees that you’ve heard of. You don’t know what to do. So we don’t do a very good job of what’s your next step? How do we make that as part of that access? How do we make it simple?

And I know you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that, but I just think it’s so incredibly important. And we just lose kids every day that would want to. Everybody wants to do better in life. We all want to do better. We want to have access to more, better job, career pathway, et cetera. But man, giving people that next step is just so critical.

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

Absolutely. And it, and it just comes down to your point, the process, everything about college. If you’ve not navigated the system on your own before, or you don’t have a coach or a guide, it can be overwhelmingly complex. And that alone can create a barrier, a barrier for a lot of students they simply can’t get over unless they have somebody kind of grabbing them by their shoulders and saying, “Okay, let’s just take one step at a time. That first thing you need to do is just complete your FASFA and let’s talk about what that means.” And understanding what the FAFSA opens up.

I think schools do a good job nowadays in high schools of having like FAFSA days and days that you go in and you complete this, but do they understand the why and the doors that it opens up? It’s not just about getting a loan. It could also be about getting a grant, qualifying for merit-based scholarships or need-based scholarships. It’s really that first step in finding out the way to, to appropriately finance your degree and make sure you can get that ROI out of it. But are we doing a good enough job of explaining why they even need to do that? And then really thinking through the FAFSA’s done online.

Not everyone has access still. It’s still a barrier.

Dr. Rob Reynolds:

Yeah, those barriers, we have to think about them intentionally. There’s so many things that we see, we still see across higher education where we make assumptions and the assumptions are really about a fairly narrow part of the market. And we’re not thinking about kids in rural areas. That’s just a real common misstep. And I know you’re in West Virginia now and that is the vast majority of West Virginia as it is in Oklahoma actually. And always amazes me that people make these assumptions even at our state system here in Oklahoma, that a person at a rural school that somehow it’s not a problem that they’re 75 miles from a local college. And it shouldn’t be a problem for them just to go over to that local college and go through the bizarre byzantine process of enrolling and filling out FAFSA and everything.

When they’re the first-generation student, they have no background of higher education in their family driving 75 miles when you work and you got other things going on and nobody really knows anything about college is a pretty big barrier. But we make assumptions, “Well, that’s enough.” And I think to your point it’s not good enough and we have to do better. And I know that I want to get into what you’re doing at Salem, but what’s interesting to me and I know as part of your trajectory, you did spend a decent bit of time at Colorado State University in their global campus. And I’m curious because I know a little bit about CSU Global, what did you pick up there is kind of that part of your education as well and experience that really helped you kind of really poised you for what you’re doing at Salem?

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

Yeah. I think the big thing when I was working at CSU Global is we were primarily focused on non-traditional students. So not a whole lot of first-time first-year freshmen, some but that wasn’t the mission of the university necessarily. So how do you cut through the noise of a student’s life? They came to us. They came to the institution they want or need a college degree, they’ve decided that they’re ready. They’ve gone through the entire process to get here, which we’ve already discussed is no small feat.

Then how do we retain them? How do you create that connection between the online student and a campus? And at CSU Global, we didn’t necessarily have a campus in the traditional sense. There’s not a football team grounding this huge alumni base. There’s not all of these other pools that you see on a traditional campus, but how do you keep that student engaged through the process? When they’re going to get married, they’re going to get divorced, they’re going to have babies. Their kids are going to get sick. Their parents are going to get sick.

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

When you’re working with non-traditional students, they’re in that sandwich generation. Even if they’re on the younger side of the non-traditional student, they’re still caring for someone else. They’re still trying to make ends meet. And they’re still trying to have a life and all the time knowing that they need to finish this in order to get to the next step. So I think really working through that connection piece and helping students understand the long-term what’s in it for me?

I think on the front end, it’s always easy to talk about that. But when you’re in the middle of 120 credit hour program and all of these other things are going on, how do you keep someone focused and how do you keep them focused in their classes and then focused on the long-term? Because in education lots of times and don’t get me wrong, there’s scholarships, there’s all kinds of great opportunities. But for a lot of students, the college experience can feel like an opportunity to go into debt, to work really hard, to maybe achieve something four or five, six years from now, especially if you’re a working adult and you’re going part-time. That’s a really long time for delayed gratification. And we’re not in a society that tolerates delayed gratification anymore.

So finding ways to connect with them in small wins, short wins. How do you really articulate what you’re learning in the classroom back to your employer and how do we stop as an industry saying, “This is where you need to be” because that’s what I see a lot of times in higher education. This is the standard, this is the expectation. You need to be over here. And there’s this huge valley in between where they are and where they need to be. And we just expect them to navigate that valley on their own.

So it’s really about building the bridge across the valley or trekking down the valley and hiking back up and grabbing them and helping them get through that. Not expecting students to know how to always do that on their own. So it’s really that part. I think what I really came out of that experience with is the fact that we have to partner with our students. We can’t expect them to always know how to self-advocate, always know all of the answers, and always be comfortable reaching out to us especially in the online environment.

There’s always, there’s always a perceived barrier I think between faculty and students just by structure. Then you put technology and distance education in there. Is that a real person on the other side? And how do you break those barriers down and really show the students that you’re there to help them learn and help them move to their next step?

Dr. Rob Reynolds:

No, I think that’s wonderful. And, and those are all just such important things. Really what you said I love about getting students to understand that there is a personal connection that there’s something real here and there’s real interaction, a human element. And even though it’s online even though it’s kind of distributed, I feel keeping them from feeling disconnected and how to do that is so important. A lot of people I know here hear that and they say, “Well, it’s about student engagement in the class.”Well, there’s a truth to that, but it’s so much more. It’s a systemic engagement that has to happen.

Now, so you’re at Salem now, which is a fairly unique institution, but also in a really unique place in America. For the people listening, can you give some context about Salem and West Virginia in general in terms of higher education?

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

Absolutely. So Salem is situated … I’m not the best geographist, but pretty much smack dab in the middle of the state. The closest, town, city is going to be Clarksburg-Bridgeport area. So very much in rural location and very much inside of a valley. So when we talk about geographical limitations to access, the beautiful landscape of West Virginia because it is a beautiful state, those big hills and valleys and trees and all those things that make the state so gorgeous also create true geographical barriers to access with internet and even cellphone service. So having that consistent access can be a challenge for a lot of West Virginians.

The institution itself, we’re a D-II school so we have D-II athletics. We have approximately 300 students located at our rural campus in Salem, West Virginia. And then we also do have a lot of online students. And then a large number of the students that are on campus are also are international athletes. So we work with a lot of students who do need some additional academic support, some additional language support. And really have to partner with our students.

Every fall, we’re getting that new cohort of freshmen in, and it’s really about finding out what this year’s students really need. Because the 2020 students and the 2021 students are very different students even though we’re still in COVID. And their needs are very different based off of their previous experience, either wherever or high school was along with whatever else has gone on in their personal lives as it’s related to COVID.

So again, a fairly small campus in West Virginia about 300 students, mostly student-athletes. We do have education programs and undergraduate nursing programs that we run on that campus as well. And then the vast majority of, for example, our MBA and our DBA students, those are primarily online students. And then a lot of our educator programs that are at the graduate level tend to be online. So those teachers can access those classes anytime, anywhere as well.

Dr. Rob Reynolds:

So I know West Virginia as you’ve described just in general is largely rural and you’re certainly located in that valley area. What challenges and opportunities do you see that presenting and what kind of things beyond even what you’re doing today do you see doing in the future ways to innovate to really address the needs of the population?

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

Yeah. I think the biggest opportunity is the people. Some of the most committed K-12 educators, counselors, and school leaders that I’ve ever seen. Really partnering in lots of partnerships with local businesses, especially in the energy sector and those types of things. I think what comes with that as well though is that there is kind of a shifting workforce in West Virginia. Energy and those types of things are a little bit on the decline with the changes have been made in the coal industry.

And what we’re seeing is that now the largest employers in the state of West Virginia tend to be healthcare and retail. And when you think about those two industries, healthcare can be very stable. It can be very well-paying. Retail tends to be a little less stable and lower on the pay scale. The two largest retail employers in the state are Walmart and Kroger. And so while those are large companies and there’s a lot of career progression, they’re industries that do tend to flux a lot with economic impact.

So I think some of the biggest opportunities we have in working with the state is making sure that we’re preparing students for those types of positions, as well as partnering to see how else we can influence the job market within the state. Again, I think probably the biggest challenge when it comes to accessing higher education is some of those geographical challenges. And then just like within any state, I would say another challenge is just the cost of higher education.

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

I think we’re all doing, really taking a hard look at those cost factors and seeing what we can all do to reduce costs, but the challenges and I think the economic impact of what we’ve seen nationwide in the last couple of years. But also specifically in our rural communities, the impact that that has had. And finding ways that we can help prepare people to work more in a remote setting. What are those career fields and those job fields where you don’t have to travel to work?

And also the same thing with our programs. How do we put our programs together in such a way that to your point, the student doesn’t have to travel 75 miles to go to school? If there’s has been an economic impact at home, can they stay home, can they work part-time, can they help the family and still go to college and achieve their goals as well? So I think it’s really about understanding those student needs and us working together with industry, with the K-12 schools.

I can’t wait to talk about our partnership because I think that’s one of those ways we’re reaching students where they are. They’re still in high school, let’s get their attention now and show them that they can do this. But again, just working together to put those things together like a puzzle piece so that they can experience higher ed in maybe a hybrid model. Work is going to be hybrid moving forward, right?

Dr. Rob Reynolds:


Dr. Karen Ferguson:

So starting that process while they’re still in high school and early on in their college career, we’ll just prepare them for those types of career fields as we move forward.

Dr. Rob Reynolds:

Yeah. I want to get into our partnership a little bit, but kind of my segue into that is I know West Virginia has the West Virginia’s Climb Initiative and it’s really about attainment, education attainment. And there are states in the US that have a lower percentage of overall degree attainment in West Virginia, not surprising Oklahoma is on that side and several of our other states are. Usually, it’s a lot about large rural communities or sections of the state that are rural. And so you have that, that’s a challenge and I know the state has this grand plan across the different counties to how to increase that. And certainly, Salem’s a participant in helping with that.

I wonder and this kind of segues into the high schools. If one big solution to that is what we are doing together and getting kids earlier, getting them to start that journey to be a bridge now so A. They can understand that. I think a lot of kids don’t understand that they really can do the work. They think college is for other people, especially in some areas. And so you get the experience and you go, “Oh, I can do this. I’m smart enough. I’m able to do this.” Then they get this real affordable credit too. And they’re kind of saying, “Okay, I’ve already got something. Now it’s less expensive for me to pursue that. And I’ve already done something online so I might have some flexibility there.”

Those are obviously things that we looked at as we partner with a university like Salem and we think that’s valuable. I’d like to hear you talk about kind of where you think the benefit is where you are for Salem, but also in West Virginia and just some of the excitement about that.

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

Yeah. So I think let’s maybe start with the West Virginia Climb just so we have that context. And I’ll also kind of bring up the difference with Salem University as well. So the at West Virginia Climb is the goal to get 60% of West Virginian residents with at least a certificate or a degree by 2030. A lot of states have those. I’ve seen other states and when I worked in Colorado we had similar goals. I think it was 65%. It just kind of depends on the status of the current state. And that’s all really based off of workforce needs and what we’re anticipating in the workforce for people to have that living wage and that meaningful income so that they can move forward.

Back in 2016, I think when the Climb was launched, I wasn’t yet in the state, 31% was the current attainment level. So it’s a pretty significant increase to get from 31% to 60%. And unfortunately, I think the trend in the last two years has been unfortunately in the wrong direction and probably largely due to COVID. But in 2017, 55% of high school grads were enrolling in college, and in 2018, that dropped down to 53%. And I think what we’re seeing nationally that average is going to keep going down.

But the good news is the state itself has an 89% high school graduation rate. And of all of those students, 70% are considered college-ready. So there’s not a lack of students from a percentage standpoint at least. 89% are graduating, 70% are college-ready. We should be able to get to that 60%. And I think some of that comes back to what we were talking about earlier just with FASFA. It was I think 59% of high school graduates completed the FASFA. So it’s little things like that, really getting to them and helping them understand the process like we’ve talked out and also just understand that they can do it.

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

Like we talked earlier, I finished my degree in a very, I guess, roundabout kind of way. I hated when people ask me for my transcripts because I have to go order so many because I moved around so many times and finally found my home at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, which was located on what was then McChord Air Force Base and finished my degree through that pathway. But what this really does I think is helpful, what we talked about earlier with helping people feel like they belong.

When I finally went to the University of Louisville for my master’s degree, it was the first time I was on a real campus. I was 28-years-old. I showed up in my BDUs and didn’t look like anybody else I was going to school with. I was older. Some people called me grandma at 28. I wish I was 28 now. But I finished my bachelor’s degree at 27 and actually turned 29, 28, and 29 while I was at the University of Louisville working on my master’s degree. And I wasn’t sure I could do it.

I got straight As in high school. My GPA in my undergraduate degree was all A’s, but it didn’t feel the same. It felt so different. And so the first time walking on that campus and the first time sitting down in my classes and then knowing my background was completely different from anybody else I was sitting next to. I was older, which automatically made me feel self-conscious because I probably should have done it when I was 18 is what I was feeling at the time. And it gets to that sense of belonging and that sense of accomplishment.

And I just had to keep reminding myself that I’ve done this in the past. It’s different, but I can do it. And I think that’s a little bit of what we’re doing with this partnership or I guess a lot of what we’re doing with this partnership is that exposure to success and that exposure because you’re not always going to be like everyone else. But if you know you can do it, then you can kind of grit through the rest of that. You talk a lot about grit and higher education. Grit only goes so far if you’ve never experienced success and grit only goes so far if you have no idea what to do next.

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

And what this partnership does is that it teaches them what to do next. It gives them the confidence that “I’ve attended college, I’ve completed college-level classes in the past and I’ve learned those skills and I can do this. And I do know how to ask for help and how to self-advocate.” Because the beauty of this program is that a lot of those behaviors that are required for student success are embedded in the model and we’re modeling those types of things for students throughout the experience.

So I really do I think it comes down to, one, we’re meeting them where they are. We’re not asking them to go anywhere. We’re not asking them to travel. We’re meeting them within their high school experience. It’s very, very affordable and it’s very achievable because the way the model’s put together and the level of support and access that’s provided in the actual learning and teaching experience, but then also through the help of the success coaches and the partnerships.

Dr. Rob Reynolds:

And kind of getting back to what you were talking about in terms of what matters. And one of the reasons for these students, especially online one of the reasons we added in the student success coach process was we knew that from experience both here at TEL and in previous endeavors that students just particularly when they’re working primarily online and a lot of times they synchronously kind of they don’t know what they don’t know. Or they don’t know when they’re struggling. It’s easy when we think, “Well, you know when you’re struggling.” Well, you don’t always. You’re going along fine and you get to this one thing and it makes you feel like you don’t know or anything. And you don’t intend to stop at that point, but you’re kind of a little shaky.

Maybe you wait a little while, but the longer you wait, you kind of don’t do anything. And then you’ve waited two weeks and didn’t do anything while I’m just quitting. And so we realized that to really counter that we had to have this method of both proactively reaching out to people, but also with voices that students would readily listen to. And I think you brought this up. There’s always going to be this gap between students and faculty. Having been a former faculty member, even when I thought I was a young, cool faculty member it’s pretty easy to count on one hand the number of students that ever showed up at my office hours. But there’s just a power and a gap that goes there and students are uncomfortable.

But when a student coach who’s in college very close to your age reaches out and you’re having these conversations like, “Okay, yeah, if you can do this, I can do this. I got it and I can do it.” And I think that’s has been really important, but all that just to get the students to realize, “I belong.”

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

Yep. Absolutely.

Dr. Rob Reynolds:

“I’m not an imposter. I don’t have imposter syndrome. I belong here and I can do things. I can do more than I even knew I was capable of doing.” And I think you’re right about grit. They have to know what grit’s about, what the reward is, there’s something out there. And if we don’t give them that context, I think it’s really tough. Of course, just really from a personal perspective here at TEL, we just appreciate Salem so much. Because when we started building out our college program and really focusing on dual credit and concurrent enrollment for high school students in the back of our minds, regardless of kind of where we first got traction, the idea was this is about education and service.

And one of the biggest needs we have in the US is in our rural areas. And there’s always this kind of place in my mind of West Virginia out on the map, but we have to have partners. So when Salem became a partner I was like, “Oh, okay. This could really be something.” And we’ve already seen it as you know just in our initial outreach. Now we have rural schools interested, signing up and it’s very exciting. I’m delighted to see that to know where we are, but really to think about where we can go and how we can be of service and help students and their families make this next step and make it clear for them.

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

Absolutely. And I think for us our next step as we continue with this partnership as well as to work with other schools in West Virginia, and get those articulation agreements in place. I think the biggest question that we’ve had from parents is are their classes from Salem going to transfer if they decide to go someplace else? And as you and I know, I can’t guarantee that without an articulation agreement in place. I can talk a lot about what the state’s guidance is on transfer and those types of things. But we’ve already started reaching out to a handful of at least with the one county that we’re working with, they’ve given us a list of whether kids would like to be able to transfer to if they don’t choose Salem.

So we’ve started reaching out just to get those articulation agreements in place. And I love that parents are asking those questions. I love that they’re pushing for that. My ask to our partner schools in this state is please work with us on those articulations. These students are working hard. This is an opportunity that they don’t otherwise have and let’s provide them with those pathways to take these two-year programs and turn them into four-year programs. I have no illusion that 100% of students are going to want to continue their four-year degrees with Salem.

When we talk about belonging, that’s a lot of it. You need to find the program and the community and the university that’s a good fit for you. I don’t expect that we’re going to be the right fit for every, every student. I hope we’re the right fit for some, but the biggest goal of this is helping them build their capacity and build that confidence. And then be able to take up to two years’ worth of college credit and transfer into a four-year degree and keep that momentum going. And be able to retain some of that cost savings that they could and not have to then repeat those classes.

So my ask out to my state peers is to please work with us on our articulation. And let’s really partner to support students and not worry about the type of institution. Are we a for-profit? Are we a two-year? Are we a large public? Let’s talk about the outcomes that students learned in those classes and how we can transfer that into long-term, meaningful educational opportunities for them.

Dr. Rob Reynolds:

Well, that’s such an important message, but it’s also such an important thing that you’re doing. It takes a village as you darn well know to solve some of these problems. I mean, these are things that are just entrenched in some parts of our society and this even globally. And people have to come together and say, “We had these kind of dividing lines, these boundaries, but we need to think differently.” At the end of the day, our job is to serve society by giving people a better chance and that’s through education. And we work together and we have governing bodies like accreditors that make sure that we’re all doing what we’re supposed to be doing.

And with that done, then let’s work together to serve. Hey, we all win here. The more students that come in the pipeline and go to school, the more students everybody has. But more important, the better workforce we have, the better leaders we have, the better citizens to vote that we have. Everything comes together and it serves all of our needs.

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

It does. And even health outcomes. I’m not going to be able to cite the exact research study, but I know when we were in Colorado they did a large statewide research study where they found health outcomes were improved. Depression was lower, health. I mean, just your entire, I guess, I don’t want to say your whole life because everybody has ups and downs. But the exposure to the educational process and the ability to complete that and improve your outcome comes puts people I think in a situation where they have more choice and more options. And that just leads to general improved outcomes.

Could the health outcomes be because you’re more educated or be because you have a higher-paying job with better health insurance? I don’t know. I won’t even pretend to know that, but the research is clear and it’s been done across many states that shows overall not only is your life positively impacted, but it’s that generational impact that we have as well. Because every generation wants to do better than the generation before.

I know I’m trying to do better. My parents did the best that they absolutely could do for me. And that was more than what their parents were able to do for them. And I think every generation tries to do that. So to your point when we raise that bar, every generation it’s only going to get better for the children and the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren behind us.

Dr. Rob Reynolds:

No, absolutely. And by the way, a quick PSA for people listening. If you have the opportunity, if you’re in higher education if you’re building programs doing education and you have an opportunity to employ someone who did some or all of their first education through the military while they were in service, you should hire them immediately. There is an experience that comes from working that way from going sometimes base to base to base overseas [inaudible 00:38:23]. Taking courses, the discipline, but the experience of having done that in those environments, whether they were deployed on states, it doesn’t matter is a background that you can’t get anywhere else.

I just want to throw that out there because I think that it’s obviously given you such important insight, Karen, to all of your work, but it grew its foundation you’ve been building on. And it’s a credit, it’s one of the credits to the US and the military, the G.I. Bill, and things that we do that. And to the universities that support the military because most people don’t even realize that, but it’s a huge part of our infrastructure in the US.

So I want to kind of give you the last moment here as we wind down, anything we haven’t talked out or something you think important about Salem or trajectory that you want to bring up before we bring this to an end?

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

Not really. I know one of the questions that we had talked about maybe addressing was kind of the trends that we’re starting to see in education and what those might be, and how have students needs changed. I spent some time reflecting on how have students’ needs changed. And I can honestly say I don’t know that they have. Are we talking about them more? Is this generation louder about their needs and more expressive about their needs than perhaps we were? Maybe and maybe I’m wrong, but I think when it gets down to it, students are looking for partnership. They’re looking for support. It’s up to us to build confidence in their ability to do that.

But when I think about what students need to be successful and how those things have changed, I don’t know that they have. We talked a lot about engagement in the online environment. Do we really think that those 100 and 200 student lecture halls provided engagement either? How many students get lost in that shuffle? So I think what’s been interesting about the last couple of years is, one, there’s a validation that there is a model for online learning that works for students.

Up until the last couple years there was still even though online learning had become fairly widespread doesn’t mean it was still widely accepted and widely respected. So that’s been one of the nice trends that I think we’ve seen is that we do know that online education can be done well and it can help improve educational outcomes. And I think what we’ve seen in the industry the last couple of years is also that finally, there’s this willingness to experiment in higher education.

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

I think higher ed in of itself is challenged to try new things. And I’ve spent some time in my life trying to figure out why are we so risk-averse in our field? And we have accreditation, we have all those things of course. But we also take ourselves through this dissertation process that you don’t do anything unless it’s already been proven to work. And so we kind of get stuck in this sense of, “Well, how do we do this better? Well, we can’t try. We don’t have any research that says that this works.” And you can’t get the research without trying it.”

And COVID put us in this situation where all of the very traditional institutions were forced to try something new and forced to learn from that. And I don’t think they’re all going to stick with online learning forever. But whether you call hybrid, high flex, all of these other things that have come out over the last couple of years, there’s suddenly been a willingness in our industry to meet students where they are. COVID forced us to realize that our students are people. And that they’re not these 18-year-old people that come to us with no baggage and an open canvas.

And I don’t think they ever have been, but now we’re finally recognizing it. As higher education, we’re recognizing that they have just as many challenges as our non-traditional students have always had, just as many distractions and we have to work just as hard to keep their attention. And that it is our responsibility to engage with the students and not always expect the students to come to us.

And I think that if I had to say what silver lining has really come out of what we’ve all been through in the last couple years, it’s really that, that we are finally really being student-centered and really thinking about the students instead of the institution and making the models fit them instead of making them fit our model.

Dr. Rob Reynolds:

I think that’s wonderful. I love that idea that I love to think and I believe that we are becoming as an industry much more student-centric. And I hope I’m picking up that first thread that more universities as institutions are beginning to understand what innovation is about. And in innovation, you do try things and they don’t always work. You can’t know, but that’s part of the excitement, the exploration, but that’s how we make big breakthroughs. And that’s what we need to do and we need more of that spirit. And I see that with your presence at Salem, I see that happening there. I see it in other places and it makes me very excited and I think our students will really benefit.

Karen, thanks so much for taking the time to join me today. This has been wonderful. And for those of you listening, I’ve been talking to Karen Ferguson. Dr. Ferguson’s the Provost and VP of Enrollment at Salem University in West Virginia. Thank you so much, Karen.

Dr. Karen Ferguson:

Thank you. Have a great day.

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