The newly formed Graduate Education Council (GEC) met for the first time this week. A big part of the GEC's work is to take an active role in implementing the Graduate Strategic Enrollment Plan (Graduate SEP) that was approved last quarter. The group will articulate a vision for excellence for the graduate community, assist in developing strategies and operational improvements for all aspects of graduate education, and serve an advisory function to Bill Ehmann, associate provost for research and graduate education.
The Commons caught up with Ehmann a few days before the GEC's first meeting to talk about what came out of the Graduate SEP and what lies ahead in terms of graduate education at Seattle University.
The Commons: Let's start with some background on the Graduate Strategic Enrollment Plan…
Bill Ehmann: Some years ago, we started with the Undergraduate Strategic Enrollment Plan because we had a gap of a couple hundred students from where we wanted to be. Marilyn Crone (vice president for enrollment management) and Dan Dombrowski (professor of philosophy) led a committee that worked on that piece, and it was the plan all along that after we shored up a plan for strong undergraduate enrollment-which we have done-to focus on the graduate side.
About five years ago, our headcount of graduate students was about 2,500. For a variety of reasons-some connected to national trends-our numbers declined to about 1,900, currently. So we have the capacity to support more students in getting a Jesuit graduate education and we've got exciting strategies to recruit them.
The Commons: Can you talk about the Graduate Strategic Enrollment Plan Steering Council and particularly how it arrived at its recommended target headcount for the coming years?
Bill Ehmann: The Graduate Strategic Enrollment Plan Steering Council met for about 14
Talking with community leaders who hire our graduates, we also realized that there were some areas in health to which we could pivot from our existing expertise in nursing, diagnostic ultrasound, psychology and be more representative of the health care employment opportunities that our students might want. So we thought, with investment, we could have about 400 or 500 new students in areas with a health focus. The senior administration and the Board of Trustees took this into account and then added about 10 percent to arrive at our present and final goal of 3,500 for a sustainable fall graduate headcount. We're already implementing the Graduate SEP tactics and have special initiatives being led by deans, program directors and staff, so I am very confident we will meet this goal. More students allows us to invest more in a diverse and accomplished faculty, many of whom teach both undergraduates and graduate students. We'll use the new tuition to invest in strategic initiatives that move SU forward in academic excellence.
The Commons: Can you talk about some of the strategies that are being used to meet this goal?
Bill Ehmann: We're being clearer in expectations and reporting, we're aligning our programs with students and workforce needs, and we're improving our marketing and brand positions. The plan also calls for a more comprehensive approach to international student recruitment and a focus on the SU graduate experience. I'm using some of my time to work directly with some program directors and deans to unblock problems and support creativity. We're increasing the number of scholarships available and we're also increasing financial aid.
The Commons: At one of the open forum sessions held on the Graduate SEP during fall quarter you mentioned some things that might be done operationally or in terms of recruitment to also help bring in more of the graduate students we're seeking. Can you share some of that?
Bill Ehmann: We know that graduate students often affiliate more directly with graduate faculty and their program and that the Seattle University identity can be secondary. So with that in mind, we think there are ways we can improve with our new customer relationship management software-the CRM-to help us manage the conversations we have with our prospective students all the way through to enrollment. We also held a workshop to share proven methods of communicating the opportunities we have to well-qualified students. In admissions-speak this is "funnel management." In short, we're reassessing our communications plan.
The Commons: What about space? Do we have the physical capacity to accommodate the greater headcount?
Bill Ehmann: We're talking about multi-year planning here. We also have some capacity within the courses we already have. The average class size for graduate courses has gone down and we have the room to build back up to a healthier enrollment of, say, 15-20 students per class. Space was considered in the Graduate SEP, and it does remain a challenge.
The Commons: Do you think that if the Seahawks win the Super Bowl, that will pretty much cinch it as far as reaching the 3,500 goal?
Bill Ehmann: (Laughs) Absolutely! Hmmm…I'll have to order a flag for the 3,500th man/woman.
The Commons: Looking beyond the numbers, in what ways will an expanded number of Seattle University graduate students impact the community?
Bill Ehmann: We're going to be able to get into some areas that are more matched to the workplace and getting our students the jobs and careers that they want. We're going to raise our profile because graduate students will typically take more senior positions and positions of more influence after they graduate. We're taking Seattle U deeper into organizations.
The Commons: Shifting gears, can you talk about the composition and role of the Graduate Education Council?
Bill Ehmann: The Graduate Education Council combines some smaller, formerly running committees into one group concerning all things graduate. And this group is charged with implementing the SEP, and also addressing the quality of the graduate student experience. This committee, which involves members from across campus, will be a clearinghouse and advisory to our graduate enterprise. The Academic Assembly will continue to have their role for program approvals.
The Commons: What are some of the first initiatives the council will take up?
Bill Ehmann: We're going to review the Graduate Student Outcomes that have already been worked on by Associate Provost Chuck Lawrence and others and approved. And we're going to think about putting together a graduate student master plan.
The Commons: Talking more generally now, is there anything that faculty and staff might be surprised to learn about graduate education?
Bill Ehmann: We know that graduate education is important for new knowledge, but students will also find that with a graduate degree they'll make about a million dollars more over their career. There are studies that show they'll have healthier lifestyles. The bonds they have with their program can often be stronger (than with their undergraduate program) because they become colleagues with their faculty. A graduate degree is often a degree that makes the most difference for people in their careers. Fewer than 20 percent of the American workforce has a post-baccalaureate degree, and less than five percent has a doctorate. So these are degrees of distinction.
The Commons: Can you talk about your impressions of SU?
Bill Ehmann: I was excited to join the community about year ago because, unlike some other institutions, SU has a very clear sense of what we believe in together. And so we're working on getting that message out-not creating a new message. And that's a great place to be. I really see the Jesuit tradition here well matched to today's interest in social innovation and making positive change in our world.