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Almost anytime someone starts asking about the Texas State Technical College West Texas’s enrollment drop, TSTC officials at the college and the system will proudly point to their new funding model called the “value-added accountability funding formula” by Chancellor Mike Reeser in the 7/27/2013 New York Times article titled “Makeover for Technical Colleges, Based on Graduates’ Earnings.” The State of Texas, which recently passed the new funding formula into law this year to take effect in September, calls it the “Returned Value Funding Model.” No matter what it is called, however, TSTC West Texas has been pointing to it for years as an excuse for its falling enrollment, and it won’t even be in effect until September 1st of this year. Clearly then, the new model itself has caused very little out there yet. What HAS caused the enrollment crash is administrators’ notions of how to prepare for the new model–in other words, their decisions, decisions which have impacted their annual unduplicated headcount, their for-credit enrollment, and their employees’ jobs.

Some of those notions and their negative impact could have been avoided with just a little bit of higher education management acumen. For instance, take this quote from the New York Times story:

Mr. Reamy pointed to the West Texas administration’s decision to outsource its general academic courses — which are required for an associate degree — to nearby community colleges as a significant reason for declining interest in the college.

Its nursing program also took a hit in 2012 when it was placed on conditional approval status by the Texas Board of Nursing, which prevented it from enrolling new students for much of the year.

“Maybe they are going to fix it,” Mr. Reamy said. “They look like they may be poised to stop the drop. But if they don’t, how low can they go?”

Ms. Lawrence said the nursing program was back on track and should grow after being “retooled.” She also acknowledged that moving general academic courses off campus had proved unpopular with students and said that they would soon return.

Nursing Program woes aside, TSTC West Texas President Gail Lawrence, in the first public acknowledgement I’ve been able to find, admitted administrators had made a mistake, although she didn’t use the “m”-word, and said they were throwing the college’s gearshift into reverse and reconstituting their academics. Good for her. Once people admit a mistake, it’s much easier to fix it since they don’t have to run around acting like nothing is wrong. Had the college been attuned to its students, however, administrators would never have jettisoned their academics to start with. All they had to do was ask students what they thought beforehand.

Now, take a look at the image below, which shows when TSTC West Texas administered its student satisfaction surveys. Note that I do not have the latest image available since TSTC has password protected the Institutional Effectiveness site now.

Student Satisfaction Surveys Fall 2002 to Fall 2011

Student Satisfaction Surveys Fall 2002 to Fall 2011

Just look at the missing four years there: fall 2007, fall 2008, fall 2009, and fall 2010. It was during that period that administrators made their fateful decision regarding academics, too. The surveys began again the following year after Gail Lawrence took charge in late 2010 and President Mike Reeser became the TSTC System’s chancellor. Once again, good for her, and I sincerely mean that.

In this particular case regarding academic courses, TSTC West Texas learned the hard way that students are customers and make decisions for themselves. They didn’t buy what TSTC West Texas was selling and purchased their product, their education, somewhere else.

Staying student-centered is critical for any college. The decision to eliminate academics may have made sense to administrators in terms of their new funding model, but it didn’t make sense to their students and potential students.

All anybody had to do was ask them.