Leadership & Governance

Adapting in Tough Times

Allison Garrett, president of Emporia State U.

July 11, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz

Allison Garrett, president of Emporia State University, in Kansas, talks about how her institution is dealing with a challenging state budget and trying to better serve the students and contribute to the economy in the region.


ERIC KELDERMAN: Hi. I'm Eric Kelderman, a senior reporter here at The Chronicle of Higher Education. And today, we're talking with Allison Garrett, the president of Emporia State University in Kansas. Welcome to The Chronicle, Ms. Garrett.

ALLISON GARRETT: Thank you so much, Eric.

ERIC KELDERMAN: A lot of folks watching this video are probably not intimately familiar with Emporia State University, so could you tell us a little bit about where Emporia is and the kind of region it is and the kind of students it serves?

ALLISON GARRETT: Sure. Well, Emporia is about equidistant between Kansas City and Wichita on I-35. And so we have good access from all parts of Kansas. We do serve a large number of Kansas students, but we have students coming from the broader region and a large number of international students. In all, we have around 6,000 students. A large percentage of them are graduate students. And we do have a lot of graduate programs online.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Your state has had some very tough budgets. I think it would be fair to say it has not maybe bounced back from the recession the way a lot of other states have. Talk to me about how that's impacted your institution and how you've tried to maintain quality in the face of some shrinking resources.

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ALLISON GARRETT: Well, I think there is a very real tension among quality and the number of students you have. And we are certainly focused on that. One of the things that I think has helped us is that we do have a large percentage of our students who are graduate students. It's not all about the number of noses that you have in a sense, but sometimes it's about the mix of students. So last year, for example, we were down in head count by 20 students, but we were up in tuition revenue, because the mix happened to include more graduate students. And we've certainly had some success in the area of building out graduate programs and hope to continue to do that.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Sure. That's very interesting. Can you talk a little bit about how you're focusing on how important it is, focusing on trying to help the economy in the region where you're located?

ALLISON GARRETT: Well, certainly. Like many universities, we do have a small-business-development center. And by our calculation, for every dollar that's invested into that small-business-development center, we're returning about $11 to the local economy. And so we think that's a great investment, helping to build out regional companies, and attract more businesses to the Emporia area.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Now, you're not a big university. You have about, if I recall, about 3,500 students.

ALLISON GARRETT: Undergrads. Right.

ERIC KELDERMAN: And your range of programming isn't going to be as large, say, as the flagships in your state. Talk to me about some of the challenges and also some of the benefits of a university your size and what is that you have to deal with that the flagships aren't having to think about?

ALLISON GARRETT: I don't know that we have to deal with issues that are different in character, certainly different in size, than the flagship universities. One of the things that I'm very proud of with respect to Emporia State University is that about 45 percent of our students are first-generation college students. And that's one of the reasons why I feel that Emporia State serves a wonderful purpose within Kansas and more broadly within the region, because we're able to train students and give them their college degrees who have no family history of college-educated professionals. That said, obviously funding is a challenge for all universities, including the flagship universities in our state.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Sure. Talk to me a little bit about the tension of — you talked about tuition dollars and the increase in revenue from graduate programs. How do you balance the need for increased tuition revenue with the demands of keeping education affordable?

ALLISON GARRETT: Well, I think at Emporia State, we have done a very good job of keeping education affordable. The Kansas Board of Regents just voted on our most recent tuition package. And we're increasing by 4.9 percent, which sounds like a big percentage, but in reality that's under $150 a semester. And so I believe that we are achieving that objective of keeping our education affordable.

The Kansas Board of Regents has recently completed a new project called DegreeStats. And that's a tool that will allow families of prospective students to go online and to compare the cost of a degree at Emporia State University and the other state universities within Kansas. So you can look at what's the per-year cost, what's the cost for the degree, how much debt will the student graduate with, what are their employment prospects, what does it look like for those students five years out? And I think that will be very helpful for families. And we're at a great price point. So I think it will be helpful to Emporia State.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Do you think the policy makers in your state have a fair perception of how much it costs to educate a student? And do they also understand, I guess from your perspective, that you remain, at least within your state, relatively affordable?

ALLISON GARRETT: So my background includes experience in the corporate world, as well as in higher education. Higher education is an enormously complex business enterprise. And as you well know, we get funding from a number of different sources. Because we're a public university, we're getting money from the state. We're getting money from students in the form of tuition and fee revenue. We're also getting money from our foundation and from gifts and from grants. And all of those things have to work together for us to land on a balanced budget every single year.

I think it's incumbent upon those of us who are in the higher-education world to educate those who are in the state legislatures about how complicated it is to run a university and to balance the budget, particularly as we're finding that we have additional obligations placed on universities in the form of new laws and new regulations that sometimes require the hiring of additional individuals to comply with those laws.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Sure. Well, thanks, Ms. Garrett. We really appreciate you taking some time to talk with us today.

ALLISON GARRETT: Well, thank you. I appreciate it, Eric.

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.