In a time of inflation, high job availability and talk of a looming recession, some may rethink the decision to invest in a college degree. During 2022, college enrollments declined for the second year in a row since the start of the pandemic, though the decline was not as sharp as in 2021.
However, at Rice University in Houston, Texas, applications are still flowing at an incredible pace. “Our enrollment is strong, we’re taking in about 33,000 applicants for the 1,200 class…so we don’t see that pressure,” said Rice University President Reginald DesRoches, who heads the school in July.
While the generally high tuition fees may be a deterrent for both students and parents, DesRoches says the school has financial aid options such as “Rice Investment” available to reduce the burden. The new president also detailed a new vision for inclusion in universities, saying leadership needed to come from the top down.
The following is an edited transcript of the interview between DesRoches and David Brancaccio from Marketplace for our ongoing Economic Pulse series:
David Brancaccio: First — for higher education — COVID then a strong job market. National college enrollment, even now with this roaring job market competition, national enrollment is much lower than it was before the pandemic. Do you feel the increasing competition for fewer students at this institution?
Reginald DesRoches: Not too. I mean our enrollment is strong, we received about 33,000 applicants for the 1,200 class. So we don’t see that pressure. Obviously, COVID has just impacted all universities, including Rice in many ways in terms of how we continue to deliver our mission while keeping our community members safe and healthy. And I think we all deal with that. Fortunately, we are good at enrollment, Rice is a highly sought after university, we are very lucky from that perspective. We see the challenge in terms of recruiting talent — staff, and faculty — and then a changing workforce impacting us too because we’re in the city of Houston, where we compete for talent with everyone, not just other universities, but all these great companies. . So that’s a challenge for us too.
Brancaccio: You know, at first, I thought of the staff, but also, I mean, if you have an academic with expertise, say in computer engineering, there might be jobs elsewhere too.
DesRoches: Oh, yes, we are seeing more and more, we are competing with the industry for certain talent, faculty talent, especially in computing and data science. But then on the staff side, we’re competing with everyone and a changing landscape in terms of telework and flexibility. We have to be able to adapt to be able to retain talent and recruit talent to universities.
Brancaccio: I think it’s getting accepted in, I don’t know, a polite company to say that higher education isn’t the right choice for everyone. In fact, those are the lines of this week’s Senate debate in Pennsylvania, one of the candidates uttered those words. Given the cost of education to students, what do you think of this idea, “This isn’t right for everyone,” or think differently, “What, really, is spending money on that education?”
DesRoches: No, of course not everyone can spend the money. We are very fortunate because we truly believe at Rice that if you have the talent, and desire to study at a place like Rice, we have a very aggressive financial aid package to enable you to come to a place like Rice. Not everyone has to come to Rice, there are many other opportunities, including community colleges, and we’re working with community colleges to find a mechanism for them to go and come to a four-year institution, whether it’s Rice or one of the others. We are very proud of our financial aid, The Rice Investment, which truly provides financial assistance to students wishing to study at Rice who may not have the means to study.
Brancaccio: However, parents ask more difficult questions about the cost. I know that students too. I mean, I know that you’ve been thinking about the case, you know, to consider higher education and that investment. Share with us some of your thoughts on it.
DesRoches: Yes, I mean, ROI is something that parents are increasingly paying attention to. So we want to make sure that we provide the kind of education where students, when they leave this university, they will get a good job. And we are very proud [that] we have put students in great companies, we have very high placement rates, in jobs or in graduate school, many of our students end up going on to graduate school. We don’t just provide the kind of education to prepare them, but we really focus on the things we do outside of the classroom that can prepare our students — whether it’s a leadership program, the Doerr Institute for New Leaders, or some other right stuff. really prepare students to go out and work knowing that in five years, what they are doing now will be very different. So they need to get the kind of education that will prepare them to adapt and change over the course of their career. And I think we did well.
Brancaccio: We have reported the following survey: currently 91% of CEOs think there will be a recession next year. And of them only a third thought it would be light. That means like about two thirds, it’s something other than light. Are you working hard for it? I mean, in a sense, this is an opportunity if the economy at large, starts to lose jobs, maybe it will make it easier to run higher education institutions. But on the other hand, you may have parents and students who find it harder to pay for postage.
DesRoches: Of course. No, it is. So I think what we’ve found is that in most universities, especially at the graduate level, when the job market is getting tougher, people are coming to graduate school, you know, MBA or whatever. So from that perspective, we might see some improvement over when the economy was really good, and people would rather stay in their jobs. So we don’t see it at the graduate level. At the undergraduate level, we have to see what happens if there is a great recession as many predict.
Brancaccio: As chancellor, I think that, you set up the University Office of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion. What did you learn from the process that might be useful to other organizations involved in this issue — other organizations working for real change?
DesRoches: So a few things. It has to come from above in many ways. It has to be part of the culture, right, so we made this office, we put new leaders there, it has to be part of the university culture. Another thing I’d say isn’t just about numbers, right? It’s not just about diversity and having X percent of students or X percent of faculty or graduate students. It’s about having a sense of inclusion, students feel like they belong there. And part of that is making sure they have people in the class who are similar to them. So one of the things we really focus on, apart from having a diverse student body at the graduate and undergraduate levels, is trying to diversify the faculty, which is one of the biggest challenges facing many universities. But boy, when students see people in the class who are similar to them, it has a huge impact on their persistence and sense of belonging at university. And we’ve done it well, we’ve done it with a number of African-American faculties, for example, in the five years I’ve been here. So you can do it if you intend and actually work at the departmental level, you work at all levels to make sure that people know it’s just part of what we do as a university.
Brancaccio: And you insist that they have to look at this leadership from above.
Brancaccio: Well. So in any other organization thinking about that, try doing that. But boy, I mean, in academia, any kind of change is complicated, and all the departments you have. But it looks like you can find a way to get support.
DesRoches: We, we really. We work, obviously, from above in terms of the offices of the President and Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equality and Inclusion. But we really work at the departmental level, and every department really sees this as something they have to do.
Brancaccio: Is there money for that?
DesRoches: There are some, of course, we have an incentive for. You must align your incentives with your priorities. And that’s something we also do.
Brancaccio: You are an engineer and I have a question about engineering talent. I sat down with a leading technology CEO based in Houston this week. He moved his headquarters, a large firm, to this area because of the talent that came out of the university in the area. He said – he mentioned – Rice, among other things. What can you, an elite private university, do to help people from more diverse backgrounds gain access to some of these seemingly offered tech jobs?
DesRoches: Yes, obviously continuing to diversify our own student body, which we do at the undergraduate and postgraduate level, but also partnering with other institutions. So we partner with, we partner with HBCU here, we are very fortunate to be in the most diverse city in the US. We want to say that in Houston. But we have partnerships with TSU, with Prairie View, we have partnerships out of town also with Spelman, for example. We have a program where you can do three years there and then move to Rice in two years and get two degrees. So cooperate with universities in your city and U of H of course.
Brancaccio: University of Houston?
DesRoches: Yes, which is an institution that caters to Hispanics, just down the road. So having these partnerships is critical to success when it comes to leveraging diverse talent, particularly in the STEM field.
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