Covid disruption, discontent challenge SNU

Sierra+Nevada+Universitys+Prim+Library

Sierra Nevada University’s Prim Library

Brayden Stephenson, Editor

Students pitching tents, and practicing knots, going to and from their next adventure…daily interactions with familiar faces telling inspiring stories. This summer camp-like scene is not far from the realities of many Sierra Nevada University students’ first experience at the school. But, like most things since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March of last year, circumstances at this small college nestled on Lake Tahoe’s north shore have changed.
Empty hallways and muffled voices teaching through the blockade of masks have transformed the experience for some from an outdoor enthusiast’s utopia to a lackluster socially distanced desert. The romantic lifestyle of an SNU student feels like a legend from the past, and some students can’t help but feel the weight of the current state of the school, with faculty and administrators making efforts to reinvigorate campus in anticipation of relaxing of restrictions, while also dealing with the financial strain of reduced enrollment.
And SNU is not alone. The covid crisis coincides with a systemic decline in the higher education industry, especially as it relates to small colleges like SNU. SNU’s president, Rob Valli, is dealing with the intersection of multiple challenges in his first academic year at the helm.
“First, partly because of COVID-19, nearly all of higher education is facing financial distress,” he explained in an e-mail exchange. Valli was not available for an interview. “Some are in worse shape than others, but no institution has weathered this problem. One result is that the struggle for revenue from tuition, grants, and donations will be fiercer than it has been. Because SNU is a small, non-profit institution, we face a challenging economic environment to continue to operate in.”
According to a study done by Forbes, smaller universities – those with fewer than 1,000 students – are the most vulnerable. They are forced to offer highly discounted tuition to be competitive on price, but they are simultaneously highly dependent on tuition. Small, private colleges count tuition for upwards of 85% of their revenue. State schools have the benefit of more robust government funding, while nameplate private schools have rich endowments, which throw off critical profits in a surging investment environment. The lack of these resources at SNU exemplifies the dilemma facing small colleges across the country: Affordability, accessibility and financial sustainability.

Fixing finances
According to Maia Rowland, director of student financial services at SNU, the average financial aid package for on-ground students is $24,947. According to a review done by Niche, the national average is $7,535. For financially struggling, tuition-dependent colleges the disparity between the sticker price and the discounted price can hit the bottom line hard.
“We are addressing these issues head-on, right now, and I believe we have already made progress,” Valli said in an e-mail exchange. “For example, we’re developing a map for how SNU will move from financial stability to financial sustainability; revising and reimagining curriculum for undergraduate and graduate students that will prepare them for the current and future labor markets; and finding ways to attract and retain students who recognize and identify with the value proposition of SNU.”
Enrollment challenges
When the outdoor-inspired and hands-on learning experiences that many classes offer at SNU were disrupted by covid lockdowns and distance learning, some students sought education elsewhere in the vacuum of the unique SNU learning experience. Lower cost online programs, or even the opportunity for a gap semester, have become appealing to college students nationwide.
Logan Fullington is one of the students who left SNU after the transition to online-only instruction in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown.
“I left SNU due to my learning style, when Covid hit everything was online and I immediately started to struggle,” he said. “I know that I am a kinetic learner and online learning was frustrating. If I were to continue to go to school I would have to do it where I could be in-person all the time.”
Following an extended spring break in March 2020, SNU classes went online through the fall, before in-person instruction returned in the third week of the current spring semester. After almost a full year of Zoom-style instruction, the character of the SNU experience can feel like an artifact of a different time.
SNU’s enrollment has suffered along with colleges across the country.
“SNU experienced challenges common to many universities that led to the decline in enrollment for the 2020-2021 academic year,” Valli said in an e-mail exchange. “Potential students faced uncertainty around whether courses would be administered virtually or in-person, and some students chose to take a gap year or academic break. Further, many families of 2020 high school graduates may have reconsidered the cost for online collegiate courses and remote collegiate experiences.”
According to a leading industry publication, Inside Higher Ed, “Overall, college enrollments declined 2.5 percent this fall. This is twice the rate of decline reported in fall 2019. Higher education lost about 400,000 students this fall.”
The looming uncertainty and possibility of another shutdown contributed to students dropping out to guarantee some control over their education, but it also took its toll on enrollment at SNU and colleges nationwide.
“The total melt (a measure of students who commit but don’t show up) we had this last year was one of the highest…students will deposit and then say they aren’t going to come. Obviously Covid adds to the uncertainty and I think a lot of students were unsure if they were going to continue on Zoom,” Kyle Kelly, associate director of admissions at SNU, said. “Covid also affected retention. Returning students were probably in the same boat. Why pay if they can just work and save money, then come back when full-time in-person classes are available?”

Uncertain about the future
The uncertainty that has taken over SNU has left some students, both new and returning, unsure of their place in the campus community. The covid situation coupled with a high staff turnover has students questioning the sustainability of the school as a business.
“It’s really a bummer because I transferred into SNU as an incoming junior, so I already spent a few years at a different school and all the research I did about SNU and my tour showed me that it would be absolutely perfect for me,” Sam Rusak, SNU senior and Green Council president, said. “It looked like there was a focus on sustainability and a hands-on learning aspect that I appreciate, but unfortunately, it hasn’t felt like we’ve gotten the experience that is advertised.”
In addition to the list of changes the pandemic forced upon SNU, the school experienced significant administrative turnover. Valli replaced outgoing president Alan Walker, and with the new administration, came new faces in key leadership roles. Several veteran faculty leaders, including the former provost, vice-provost and psychology department chair, are no longer a part of the SNU team. The college lost its marketing and admissions directors, as well as key admissions support staff. The last year has also seen changes in faculty roles, and extensive vacancies in coaching and other positions.
“I think Covid had a big part of contributing to the uncertainty going around but aside from that, there’s been a big problem with administration and the school trying to understand the issues that the students are having,” Rusak said. “I think our problems aren’t being taken seriously and a lot of the focus is going towards admitting new students rather than facing the needs of the students who are already here and have decided that this is where they want to be.
“I think a lot of the students feel like the school is becoming something that they don’t believe in.”

A call for a shift in focus
As current students are growing weary of the austere environment at SNU, they’re voicing concerns about the focus on student recruitment, suggesting that there may be some need for reparations internally first. For example, throughout the last semester clubs on campus like Climate Alliance and Social Justice have attempted to gain momentum in efforts to reform the use of single-use plastic and a push for more land acknowledgments in class and on campus. These efforts have been met with unreliable or unresponsive communication from the administration team.
“I have a unique connection to administration because of the different clubs I’m in and I’m also heavily involved with student government, but even for me it’s pretty difficult to feel like I’m being heard because if I bring something up that they don’t want to hear, it feels like they don’t even care,” Rusak said. “It’s really hard to say that things are going great when I know that they’re not.”
Other students in positions of leadership on campus say can’t seem to establish a positive relationship with administration.
“It feels like the school is so focused on bringing in new students that they don’t care about retaining the students that are already here. The fact that the president won’t even talk to or acknowledge some of us is ridiculous,” Kayla Heidenreich, SNU senior and Climate Alliance president said. “It’s frustrating as the Climate Alliance president and for our club. We’re trying to do things to better the school because we genuinely care about the school and the surrounding environment, but when we try to take things to the president or his office we just get completely ignored or thrown wrenches to make things so much harder for us. It just feels like the school’s like ‘Oh, the students are acting up again, let’s make them run in circles.’”
Valli says the administration’s is making ongoing efforts to be responsive to student needs and curate a family-like community at SNU.
“I recognize and appreciate the desire for more intentional dialogue,” he said in an e-mail exchange. “I genuinely welcome that, especially as I think about how best to hear from and integrate student voices in all we do. To this point, a month and half ago we launched three focus groups, primarily made up of seniors to learn from their tacit knowledge about their experience at SNU.
“I intend for this to continue,” Valli continued. “Speaking for myself and the SNU leadership team, we pride ourselves on accessibility. We love spontaneous conversations, but if you want a more substantive dialogue, please reach out to any of us to schedule an appointment. We will make it a priority.”

Looking forward
In the wake of change and perceived hardship at SNU, Valli suggests that certain pivots and adaptations could provide some solutions.
“One idea I’m especially excited about is our new focus on creative intelligence, which I believe will re-orient SNU’s path in a number of positive ways,” he said in an e-mail exchange. “There has been a demographic trend developing over the past half decade that points toward a coming enrollment decline for private residential colleges and universities primarily focused on the liberal arts. So, we’re changing our academic focus areas and offerings to better prepare students to join the current labor market. Surveys of employers, across all sectors, consistently find that soft skills – we’re calling creative intelligence, emotional intelligence, written and oral communication, conscientiousness, creative and critical thinking – are in high demand and low supply.
“These are important as technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics alter the nature of the labor market. What scholars call ‘human work’ is where higher education needs to orient itself, and this is not a far leap for SNU. The liberal arts core and fine arts focus—together with entrepreneurship and sustainability—will enhance creative intelligence as an SNU strength. These offerings together make us stand out in a unique way, which we believe will draw renewed interest in the university.”