College With Liberal Reputation Wants to Recruit Conservative Students

A new president worries about data showing relatively small share of students report talking regularly with those who hold different political views.

October 2, 2017
 
Warren Wilson College

Lynn M. Morton, the new president of Warren Wilson College, recently had the chance to talk with high school students when she was at a music festival at which the college had a table to spread the word about itself.

A high school junior approached, and they chatted about the college's academic offerings, which seemed a good match for him. Then the student asked, "Would I feel welcome?" The student, from rural North Carolina, was wearing a bow tie.

And while Morton believes Warren Wilson is in fact a welcoming campus, she said she understood the question, coming from a student who clearly had heard about the college but was worried about fitting in. Of the student's bow-tie style, she said, "That's not a look we see," and that if he were to enroll, he would likely be the only student on campus to wear a bow tie. A "Warren Wilson Style" page on the college's website features several student tattoos, face painting, bandannas, green hair and posters about bell hooks and composting, but no bow ties.

Morton has a goal for Warren Wilson, and it's more than sartorial. She is open about wanting the college to seek out and enroll conservative students. Warren Wilson, which offers a mix of liberal arts and a strong environmental program based in part on students who farm and manage some of the college's land, is known for attracting liberal students. It is also a work college, meaning that students pay lower tuition than they would otherwise in return for working on campus.

The college is located in Swannanoa, N.C., just outside of Asheville, an artsy liberal enclave in what is otherwise a conservative part of the state. And while Asheville is a draw for liberal students, it doesn't beckon conservatives, Morton said.

Warren Wilson isn't the only place trying to recruit conservative students these days, although it may be unusual in that the college's president is talking about it. Inside Higher Ed's new survey of admissions directors found that 9 percent of public colleges and 8 percent of private colleges were stepping up recruitment of conservative students. Some college leaders have said that the 2016 elections have inspired these efforts, with academics fearful that their institutions are disconnected from conservatives who make up a majority in much of the country.

Another reason to consider the issue: some private college counselors are reporting that parents are vetoing their children's college choices based on perceptions that institutions are too liberal.

Morton said that good colleges shouldn't appeal to just "a sliver" of the population. And she said that the image people have of the college as being home to only liberals hurts recruitment efforts, whether true or not.

But Morton said that she doesn't think that the issue is just one of perception.

Warren Wilson participates in the National Survey of Student Engagement. Morton said the answer to one of the questions left her worried about the impact on all students of not having enough people around who may challenge their views. One of the questions on the survey is "During the current school year, about how often have you had discussions with people with political views other than your own?"

Of Warren Wilson seniors, only 23 percent answered "often" or "very often." At colleges that Warren Wilson considers peers, the figure was 63 percent.

Morton said that statistic says to her that there is a problem.

"There is no need for us to apologize for being a place known as welcoming to LGBT students, or concerned about human rights or sustainability," she said. "But we should broaden our appeal to those with all kinds of worldviews," she said.

Morton said people with conservative perspectives should be viewed as an asset in interactions inside and outside the classroom.

And Morton said she fears that the lack of ideological diversity is having an impact. In recent years Warren Wilson has had a yield of only 20 percent of those who visited the campus, compared to 30 percent for comparable institutions, she said. Typically those who visit are among the most likely to enroll. She guesses that some of those not enrolling didn't feel they fit in.

So she is talking to students like the one in the bow tie to get a sense of why they consider or don't consider Warren Wilson (and that has made her more aware of the image of the college). She is seeking out faculty members and others to talk about the issue. She approached the chaplain to ask if a committed Christian student would feel comfortable on campus, and was pleased to be told yes.

But attracting conservative students isn't the same as attracting other groups of students. Colleges don't ask for political leanings on application forms. Only so many students write application essays about Milton Friedman or Margaret Thatcher as their heroes, or boast that they organized their high school for the Ted Cruz campaign. And of course there are plenty of liberals who are Christians or who wear bow ties. Views on President Trump (no doubt the subject of plenty of college applicants' essays in the years ahead) are hardly predictive in an era when some who identify as Christian conservatives are as horrified by his anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric as are secular liberals.

So what can Warren Wilson do?

The college isn't adding a question to its application form. But Morton outlined several steps the college is taking. First, there is public discussion of the issue. Morton said she speaks about the issue frequently, and that she did so in her job interview for the presidency, to be sure the college's trustees would be behind the effort. Faculty members are organizing discussions of how they can promote the inclusion of a diversity of views in classes where all of those who talk are advocating progressive positions. These types of activities, Morton said, may make prospective students feel more welcome when they visit.

And then there are specific admissions strategies.

The college is now upping recruitment efforts in rural high schools in the counties that surround Asheville, high schools that might not have been a focus before and that -- on average -- tend to have students from conservative families.

Warren Wilson is trying to promote itself in these areas based on academic strengths that may resonate. For example, the college's music program -- befitting its Blue Ridge Mountains location -- has a traditional music concentration. The college teaches about traditional fiddling, clogging, bluegrass, banjo and more. These are genres popular in the area, but many students may not associate a "liberal" college as not only teaching about this music genre, but nurturing it. New efforts will be made to promote these programs with students who aren't learning these music styles for the first time, but who have known them from a young age.

Another pitch the college will be making relates to its farm, 275 acres on which students make key decisions and work the land, including the sale of beef, pork, poultry and lamb from animals raised at Warren Wilson. The farm, which embraces principles of sustainability, has long attracted students (not necessarily from farm families) who have been interested in environmental issues. Morton wants the college to promote the farm as an invaluable educational resource for students from the region who come from farm families and want to return to them.

Recruiting students interested in agriculture or music who come from the region surrounding Asheville may not guarantee that conservatives are recruited. But odds are that those who are recruited are likely to be more conservative, politically and socially, than typical Warren Wilson students are today.

Not everyone is thrilled about Morton's push, with the opposition tending to come from alumni who are proud of the college's progressive reputation.

Last month, U.S. Representative Patrick McHenry asked to speak on campus. McHenry, a conservative Republican, is in his seventh term representing the district that includes the college, but this was his first visit to campus.

When the college posted photos of the visit on Facebook, there were alumni comments such as "he definitely could stand to have his mind expanded" and "I wonder what this man would say if he knew I am a WWC alum: me a Mexican homosexual, would he be as gleeful as he looks on these pictures? I get the point of having elected officials see our wonderful campus, but does he get it? I don't think so. I am at odds with my feelings on this post!"

To Morton, however, having the member of Congress who represents a college visit the campus is just a good opportunity to talk about issues. And in this case, a chance to have another perspective for students to hear, regardless of whether they agree.

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