It’s been a tough decade for Kentucky’s public universities, as they’ve had to deal with multiple cuts to state higher education funding, tuition increases, administration shakeups, and staff and faculty downsizings.
Through it all, Western Kentucky University President Timothy Caboni is pleased to report that enrollment at his school in Bowling Green, Ky., has remained steady at around 20,000 students. Caboni attributes that success to being what he calls a “Goldilocks university.”
“We’re not too big, we’re not too small, we’re just right,” he says. “You can find your place, you have faculty that will wrap their arms around you and care deeply about your success, and get you to graduation. At the same time we offer everything you can imagine that a university offers, and if we don’t have it, we’ll create it with you.”
Caboni, who is in his second year as president of WKU, appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss his plans for the school and the challenges facing higher education in the commonwealth.
Caboni is no stranger to Bowling Green. He got his master’s degree in corporate and organizational communications from Western in 1994. After that, he served as an associate dean at Vanderbilt University and a vice chancellor at the University of Kansas before being named WKU’s 10th president in 2017.
During his first year on the job, Caboni led a strategic planning process that involved hundreds of people across the campus.
“It doesn’t matter what my vision is for the campus,” he says. “What matters is what we aspire to together as a community.”
The resulting 10-year plan, called Climbing to Greater Heights, focuses on improving student success. That includes embracing WKU’s role of being an applied research university rather than a so-called “research one” school like the Universities of Kentucky and Louisville.
“Research universities are wonderful things, and we don’t need another one of those in the state of Kentucky,” says Caboni. “We want to be the state’s applied research university… We want every one of our students, as soon as they’re ready in their freshman [or] sophomore years, to work alongside a faculty member on a project that is connected to their career path and also connected to the real world.”
Ensuring Students Are Ready for University Work
But attracting and retaining the best students isn’t easy in an era of tighter budgets and higher tuitions. Caboni says WKU used to receive about half of its funding from the state. Now it’s only 17 percent.
“That means we have to find other ways to help young people and their families afford to have access and to be successful at Western Kentucky University,” he says.
The school will provide more financial aid for students, says Caboni, and it will also retool its admissions policies to focus on those students who have the best chances for success in college.
“There was a cohort of young people that we were admitting that really were not ready to do work at a four-year institution,” he says. “We have to be honest with those students, with their schools, and with their families that they’re not ready to be here.”
For example, out of a group of 100 freshmen that entered WKU in the fall, Caboni says 80 of them had dropped out by the start of the spring semester. And they left school with an average student loan debt of $4,000.
“That’s wrong,” he says.
Instead, Caboni wants to help students like that get into a community college where they stand a greater chance of success. When they complete their education there, they can transfer to WKU for their junior and senior years and pay a tuition that is comparable to what they were paying at the community college.
The university is also launching a comprehensive advising program that not only helps new students navigate their academic activities, but will also help them with financial aid issues, health concerns, and integrating socially into campus life. Next year, WKU will launch a five-week summer academy for incoming freshmen that need extra help acclimating to the college environment. Those students will get to move into their dorm rooms early, work with mentors and faculty navigators, and take two courses, all for a $500 fee.
“This allows us to help them get over those first humps that they face in a very hands-on way with all the support that they need,” Caboni says.
Adjusting to a New State Funding Mechanism
WKU and other state universities not only face lower overall state funding, but a portion of their public support is now being allocated based on how the schools perform on several key metrics. Those factors include the number of degrees awarded, the type of degree produced (such as science and technology versus liberal arts), course credit hours completed by students, and whether the school is closing achievement gaps between various student groups. Caboni says this outcomes-based funding means that the public universities and community colleges in the commonwealth will, in essence, compete against each other for state support.
“It’s reasonable for the taxpayers of Kentucky to expect us to do certain things for the money they invest in our public institutions,” says Caboni.
Presidents at some of the state’s regional universities have argued that outcomes-based funding favors the larger schools in the commonwealth. Caboni says using aggregate numbers for degree attainment and other student measures does favor some institutions. But over time, the metrics will evolve to compare an individual school’s performance against an average for the entire state system.
Caboni says he’s embraces the competitive nature of outcomes-based funding because he believes WKU can win.
“What we have to focus in on is, how do you align internal allocations with those outcome metrics,” he says. “So [we’re] thinking about how we reward not just deans but also department chairs with dollars when you have more students who enroll, more course taking, how students persist and how they graduate. If we are able to align our internal resource allocation with those external metrics, we’re going to be fine.”
Supporting Surrounding Communities
Still, a budget shortfall forced WKU to cut some 150 faculty and staff positions earlier this year. Caboni says university officials simply have to do more with less and be creative in fostering new partnerships. One example is a new medical school campus that WKU is hosting in collaboration with the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.
“That’s a great win, not for UK or for WKU,” Caboni says. “That’s a great win for Bowling Green and south central Kentucky to produce new primary care physicians.”
Caboni is keenly aware of WKU’s role in supporting surrounding communities. The school’s new strategic plan includes a section devoted to nurturing the quality of life in the region.
“We know we are linked to the success of the economy of south central Kentucky,” he says. “We can’t only focus on Warren County. We have to elevate all 27 counties in our service region.
“Without us, the future is tough for those places,” Caboni adds.
Caboni says WKU can cooperate and collaborate on attracting new businesses and investments to the region. And it can prepare students to fill some of the thousands of jobs that are currently open those communities.
“With the desperate workforce needs that we have as a state, we have an obligation as a public institution to provide that educated workforce,” says Caboni.
The school has launched a pilot program that will enable individuals who have an associate’s degree in health care, information technology, business, or manufacturing fields to earn a bachelor’s degree through online study. The total price for students is $7,500.
“That is the cheapest per-credit tuition of any public four-year institution in the state,” says Caboni. “So we’re really working hard to help those folks who are in the workplace and who need a bachelor’s degree to move ahead in their career get that.”