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Fort Lewis College to emphasize STEM majors to increase enrollment

School dealing with reality of higher education today

Fort Lewis College has looked at the numbers in higher education and come to a conclusion: emphasizing its science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines should be the engine that brings in more students.

“What that means is that, if FLC were a department store, STEM is what we are putting in our store windows,” FLC spokesman Mitch Davis said. “It’s not the only thing we offer, but it’s what will get more students in the door.”

The change in emphasis does not mean liberal arts are going away, and they remain a core component of the mission statement the FLC board approved in December.

“The arts, humanities and business are a key strength of Fort Lewis,” Davis said. “Other STEM-focused schools in the country are trying to incorporate the arts and humanities in their curriculum. The fact we already have strong non-STEM programs is a competitive advantage for us.”

The humanities and arts FLC offers have helped its STEM graduates excel in careers and graduate school, alumni have said.

“The idea of the liberal arts as a system by which students reach across disciplines and grow critical thinking skills and their knowledge base will continue at FLC,” Davis said.

Providing local jobs

That’s not the only reason to keep the humanities, arts, business and education offerings in the curriculum, he said.

“We also have a responsibility to serve the workforce needs of our region,” Davis said.

“That means accountants and business leaders. That means teachers. The list goes on. Though STEM will be at the forefront, it will not be the only thing Fort Lewis offers.”

The college has hired FLC alumna Ramona Pierson, the founder of two businesses in Silicon Valley, to serve as the strategy officer guiding the shift.

“Using STEM as leverage, we should see an expansion in humanities classes because they’ll mostly be affected by having more bodies in classrooms,” Pierson said Thursday after attending an all-campus meeting.

“For example, with growth in fields like nanotechnology and AI (artificial intelligence), there’s an opportunity for philosophers to bring those skills we need to help shape conversations around ethics and what it means to be human. I can see Fort Lewis students writing position papers and blogs that can drive the thinking about this in the future.”

She recognizes that change can frighten people, she said, and it will require buy-in from the faculty and grant writing to organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and National Science Foundation, which have programs to fund faculty and teacher training.

“Some of this is going to happen pretty fast,” said Mark Jastorff, vice president of advancement for the college.

Other parts may be scheduled in the college’s five-year plan.

Next up is a hackathon on May 16, when faculty and staff will meet to organize the more than 200 ideas that have been submitted.

It’s all in the numbers

As part of its strategic planning process, the college took a hard look at national, state and its own trends. The numbers show the college, which has had decreasing enrollment over the last few years, is in sync with the national trends.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, enrollment across higher education has dropped annually starting in 2013, and enrollment among the country’s four-year colleges has remained stagnant over that period, although Colorado’s enrollment dropped 2 percent.

Another trend is students who choose four-year colleges tend to prefer universities over smaller regional schools such as Fort Lewis. FLC’s peer institutions also are seeing enrollment drops.

In addition, the college has increased its graduation rate – a good thing – but that can mean a bigger hole to fill with new students each year.

“Another issue that’s been identified is that Fort Lewis College’s marketing and recruiting efforts are too broad and are trying to include programs that have seen enrollment stagnation and declines, both here and at the national level,” Davis said. “This is a losing strategy and does not help us build a reputation.”

The categories of natural and behavioral sciences (which contain engineering and math) are in the only division of FLC that has more students today than in 2011, he said.

Those disciplines have more than twice the students as any other division. The School of Education remains flat.

Enrollment matters because Colorado has cut significant funding for its public colleges, with the state ranking 48th in the country for state funding of higher education. Tuition is FLC’s major source of revenue.

“This falls in line with national trends regarding increased enrollment in the sciences,” Davis said.

“FLC students, and students nationwide, are voting with their feet, and we are seeing what they are demanding. In reality, FLC is already a STEM school and has been for some time.”


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