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For decades, students at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., have had the power to forge their own paths of study. The college has no majors, no academic departments and no grades. The emphasis for “Greeners” has always been on interdisciplinary, self-directed learning.

But Evergreen’s enrollment started dropping after the end of the financial crisis. To be sure, many colleges are dealing with low enrollment because of declining birth rates that have resulted in fewer Americans of traditional college age. But at Evergreen, enrollment has dropped by 1,000 students since 2017, to about 2,900, indicating something else might be at play. Of course, the strong progressive bent on campus might be a turn-off to some, especially after student protesters made national news in 2017 for occupying the president's office and calling for a professor to be fired.

But some of the enrollment drop preceded those events, officials said, leading them to believe there were other factors leading to the decline. This year, the college is making some academic changes the administration hopes can help recruit students and -- crucially -- retain them.

Now courses have been reorganized around 11 “paths of study,” with themes like political economy, math and computer science, food and agriculture, and Native American and indigenous programs. All courses will now be marked with their level, from introductory to advanced. The college, which has traditionally had a curriculum that changes every year, will now commit to a five-year plan of offerings. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation contributed grants totaling $800,000 to carry out the changes.

New Students, New Preferences

George Bridges, president of the college, said the student population at Evergreen now wants different things out of college than students who may have attended Evergreen in past decades. Evergreen’s acceptance rate is about 97 percent. The student population now has a high number of first-generation college students and military veterans. About half of all students are transfers from community colleges.

“They have a very different vision of what college would be and have different needs,” Bridges said. “They want to leave Evergreen with a degree they can use in a career, in a market,” and that’s explicable to employers. Students who attended in past decades grew up in a different economic climate, he said, and weren't seeking such specific outcomes.

Of students who were leaving the college before graduation, a majority left after only one year. When the administration surveyed those students, many expressed uncertainty over the curriculum. They were unsure if the courses they wanted would be offered, and if they could get into those courses to pursue advanced study in a particular area.

Bridges traced some of the career anxiety to the Great Recession, saying that students who watched their families be put out of work were in particular wondering what their college education could provide them.

“We’re living and working in a world where the liberal arts have declined in favor among those attending higher education,” Bridges said.

Planning the curriculum in advance will give students some certainty that they can achieve their goals, he said. The paths, which students are not at all required to follow, will allow those who want to specialize and those who want to explore to both achieve their goals. The changes do not mean that Evergreen is moving away from its roots or its mission, he emphasized. The college is still a space for students to self-direct learning and synthesize different disciplines. Team teaching, where faculty of different disciplines collaborate on a course, is still very common.

Jennifer Drake, Evergreen’s provost, who came on in 2017, said increased predictability and learning pathways are part of a commitment to equity for the college. Students now more likely to be balancing work and personal commitments, she said.

Similarly, creating pathways to advanced work, she said, can ensure equitable access to “high-impact practices,” meaning immersive experiences like research, internships or study abroad.

“Students from underrepresented groups benefit substantially from those experiences and don’t always have equitable access to those experiences,” Drake said, drawing from national research.

Officials said that many ideas for the changes came from the faculty, who recognized an imperative to listen to student concerns and understood that fewer students meant continued budget cuts. The college has cut 34 positions in the last two years, The Olympian reported last month.

The academic changes were incorporated into the faculty’s collective bargaining agreement, and faculty voted in favor of the contract 62 to 8, said Laurie Meeker, an Evergreen professor in media studies and communication coordinator for the union.

“This wasn’t that controversial from our point of view as a union,” Meeker said. “It’s a way of providing students with curricular clarity and coherence.”

Meeker and Drake both stressed that that Evergreen will still be providing a wholly liberal arts education, and that the liberal arts has always been strong preparation for a career.

Ed Wingenbach, president of Hampshire College, a similarly experimental institution which has itself suffered major enrollment and financial problems, agreed, drawing on national data showing employers value the skills imparted by a liberal arts education.

But he indicated that the two colleges, while both strong in their commitment to self-directed learning, differ in how they’ve chosen to try to communicate the value of that to students. While Evergreen is moving one inch closer to traditional education, Hampshire, which is also reorganizing its curriculum, is moving further away.

“[At Evergreen, it appears] they need to be able to make what they’re doing look more like what is recognizable to prospective students as a major, as a way in which a structured education leads down a path to an outcome that is clearly defined,” he said, “which is perfectly fine.”

“Rather than trying to take the self-directed, self-designed model at Hampshire and make it look more like a traditional pathway, we’re trying to make it even less like that.”

Hampshire’s curriculum will be reorganized this fall into four thematic areas, including “time and narrative,” “media and technology” and “in/justice.”

“It’s important to communicate to changing populations of students why a liberal arts education prepares you for the world that you can’t know,” Wingenbach said. “The best way to make that case isn’t by doubling down on what people already do.”

Over all, Evergreen officials stressed, the changes provide more clarity and transparency and were what students had requested.

“Responding to student input is essential,” Drake said. “Its an ethical imperative.”

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