By editorial board • 

Current college landscape poses some new challenges for Linfield

Linfield College President Thomas Hellie delivered some refreshingly direct remarks last week about the state of McMinnville’s four-year university. The message he drove home is how no college or university can simply rest on past laurels to cultivate a new generation of college students. 

The president said the college had suffered a 5 percent drop in enrollment this fall. He described that as smoke that needed to be dealt with before it erupted into full-blown flames.

Most explanations for the decrease are out of the college’s hands. For one, higher education has developed an image problem nationally, based on fears of mounting student debt and post-graduation unemployment, coupled with a renewed vocational interest that has some questioning the worth of a liberal arts degree. 

“More than ever, we need to emphasize our value,” Hellie said. And college leaders throughout the U.S. are echoing that.

According to a recent survey by Inside Higher Ed, 90 percent of private college leaders and 81 percent of their public school peers strongly agree with the statement, “Higher education needs to do a better job of explaining the value of earning college degrees.”  

Furthermore, Hellie noted, private schools like Linfield need to demonstrate they can deliver a higher return on investment, even with costlier tuition rates factored in.
Throughout the West, university systems have begun putting stronger emphasis on recruitment of in-state students. But free and reduced-cost tuition programs in the community college system have added a new layer of competition in Oregon.

All of this makes the college enrollment picture highly volatile. But not everyone is feeling the pinch, at least not yet.

About 20 miles north, Quaker-oriented George Fox University is celebrating record enrollment this fall. Some of the credit surely goes to the college’s recent addition of a football program, being extensively marketed around the state and region.

The success of Yamhill County’s two private institutions of higher living are vital to their hometowns. It’s a wild marketplace now, so trends are prone to shifting in unpredictable ways.

Hellie’s vision for Linfield’s future seems sound. We agree with his assessment that Linfield “can no longer be modest” about its many successes and advantages.
The school needs to regain its footing in today’s student marketplace. That could mean expanding into new programs, like its growing wine major.

That’s an atypical venture in the context of classic higher education thought, but likely a necessary one as competition begins raising new challenges for admission directors.