Lane One-on-One: WKU President Timothy Caboni

By Investing in Its Freshmen, WKU Expects Better Outcomes for All

By Mark Green

Timothy C. Caboni became Western Kentucky University’s 10th president on July 1, 2017.

Mark Green: Financial considerations are at the forefront of students’ minds. According to your recent announcements, nearly 80% of WKU’s incoming freshmen in fall 2020 will be eligible for some type of institutional scholarship aid, compared to 39% this fall. How is this being accomplished?

Timothy Caboni: WKU is an institution of opportunity and access, and we want to remain so for any family no matter their economic condition. In the past 18 months, to put this scholarship program together, the university took a close look at the predictors of success at WKU. The strongest, most consistent predictor of success is high school GPA. If the ACT score was a barrier we were placing in front of students, the question is,  ‘Why would we do that?’ It makes more sense to reward students for their performance over four years of high school instead of on a single day on a single test – particularly when you think about the variation of scores based upon socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity. We want to do things that allow students who are prepared to be successful, to reward them for their performance in high school.

We have a 27-county service area from Owensboro to Louisville to the state line south of Bowling Green, a huge triangle with a vast diversity of communities, many of who are struggling economically. We need to do our part to support the young people in each of those communities who want to get a college degree at WKU. 

The other thing we’ve done is become much more efficient in how we deploy scholarship dollars, making sure every dollar is focused on the recruitment of that first-year class. We spent a lot of time looking at our internal resources, how those are invested. The team was creative. This is innovative not just for WKU and the commonwealth but nationally. Many institutions have gone test-optional for admission. We were able to remove it for almost all our scholarships, and it’s going to make a tremendous difference in students who otherwise might not be able or might not look at WKU, and in our enrollment for our freshman class.

We’re looking at an additional $3-$5 million in scholarships year over year. That is a significant investment – and not just in first-year students. I’ve said on many occasions: I’m not interested in recruiting freshmen; I’m interested in recruiting students who are going to be here for four years and graduate. If that’s the perspective, then we’ll retain those (first-year) students, they’ll get their degrees, and most importantly they’ll contribute to the workforce of the commonwealth, which we desperately need in south-central Kentucky.

To pay for it, we’re doing something called the WKU Opportunity Fund. In my investiture speech, we announced an effort to raise over $50 million in scholarship support focused on students who otherwise might not be able to afford to come take part in the full WKU experience. We’ve raised over $27 million and have created 72 new endowed scholarship funds to support young people who want to be here and deserve a shot at pursuing a college education. Fundraising is a crucial part of this. It’s led by Kacy Schmidt, my wife and our first lady, who also works in our development office. There are a lot of folks engaged in helping, raising the voluntary support necessary to pay for this.

There’s an expectation that they perform academically, but that’s also on us to make sure they have the resources, the advising, and the support necessary to be successful at WKU. We’ve been spending a great deal of time on those efforts.

MG: What is the threshold GPA?

TC: It looks like a 3.0 unweighted throughout high school, a solid B average. That’s a student who can be successful at WKU, and that’s exactly the kind of student we were built for. Some institutions want to exclude; we have our arms open to any student who’s ready to be successful here and is looking for what we do at WKU: an undergraduate experience second to none in the commonwealth, the ability to pursue research as soon as you’re ready as an undergraduate, a remarkable college town in Bowling Green that’s livable, a campus that is a true college campus, not in a big city but a true college campus that allows our students to take advantage of a full WKU experience. And we’re an hour north of the hottest city in the country. I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t want to come study with us for four years.

MG: What is WKU’s freshman class size today? How does that compare to the past?

TC: We’re at about 3,000 students. That first-year class is a couple hundred smaller than in previous years, but part of this is by design. We made an intentional decision to stop admitting students for a very particular reason. We had young people we made offers of admission to who had below a 2.0 GPA and we knew were not prepared, based upon the data, to do the work here at WKU. Only 20% of these students made it into their sophomore year. The 80% who left during freshman year left with an average debt load of $4,000. That’s not fair to the students, not fair to their families, and it’s not right for us to do that. We stopped admitting those people and helped them get to a community or technical college to pursue their degrees. And if they perform well we’ll welcome them in their junior years.

We want to make sure every student we admit is prepared to do the work at WKU. We’re focused on student success and supporting the students we get when they’re here.

MG: All colleges and universities are working to improve student retention and graduation rates. Where does WKU stand?

TC: We want to have 80% of our freshman come back in the sophomore year, and we want 60% of our incoming class to graduate with a degree. That may not sound like a lot, but if and when we hit that 80% mark, that puts us on par with many flagship universities nationally.

We’ve had a set of targeted interventions that helped improved our first-to-second-year retention rate by 3 percentage points, which in higher education is a tremendous result. For our underrepresented minority population, we’ve improved that number by over 5 percentage points. That’s happened for a number of reasons.

The new scholarship program was piloted in the background for about a year. We couple that with much more intentional advising in the first and second years, which is a change for us – something called the Birch Institute and its Pathways program, helping students earn scholarship dollars while coming to class freshman year. We’re also wrapping support systems around them: counseling, external financial aid support and helping them get the resources they need. We also launched the Intercultural Student Engagement Center focused on students of color, creating a community and a peer network for them, a place where they’ll be comfortable to hang out while helping make sure they have the support they need to be successful at WKU.

Most importantly, as an institution we are committed to ensuring for every student we admit as a freshman we do everything we can to get them to graduation in four years. We’ve worked hard on that.

Last summer we created the Summer Scholars Program for students we know are going to struggle but who can be successful – they need a little extra. We ask them to meet us halfway: come five weeks before classes begin, live in our residence halls, take meals and have a roommate who’s going to be the same roommate they have in the fall, and to take two classes, one of which is how to do college and the other is a core course. We pay for their orientation and master plan, and charge them $500. Here is the deal: If you come for $500, take two classes and can get two C’s, then you’ll continue into the fall semester.

This is a pilot year. We had 142 students begin and 117 made it into the fall – a tremendous success rate for those who are willing to do the work it’s going to take to be successful. The ones who weren’t able to do it we helped get to their local community colleges.

There are a range of policy levers that we’re pulling focused on student success. All of them together have contributed to that remarkable year-over-year improvement.

MG: What are the trends in WKU’s overall student body composition and size?

TC: We’re still at about 20,000, but the mix has shifted. We have more dual-credit students – who are in high school – than previously. We have many fewer international students. That international student decline began in fall 2014; we had a high of about 1,400 and we’re down now at the undergraduate level to about 400. What that means for revenue is that we’re challenged, and we’ve been working through that, rightsizing our budget and being as efficient as possible.

The most concerning thing for me when I got here was that we had 2,500 who applied to WKU and then didn’t go to any four-year institution, community college, technical college or certificate training. That number grew to 3,000 two years ago. This year 50% of the students who applied to WKU for college didn’t go anywhere. Part of that is a labor market issue. Young people see jobs available without anything more than a high school degree, and they’re going straight to work. And I can’t argue against young people taking that kind of opportunity.

But here’s the thing I do know. If you haven’t visited Sumitomo, which is an electronics manufacturing facility here in south-central Kentucky, go take a look. What I saw when I visited last summer was four people running four football fields worth of manufacturing equipment. I like to say every young person needs “college.” They may not need a four-year degree, but they need an associate degree, a technical degree, or some sort of certification, because ‘when the robots begin to take over,’ when we really accelerate the automation of manufacturing, those folks who took those jobs right out of high school are going to struggle unless they’ve gotten additional training and are prepared for lifelong learning. We’re working hard to help people understand that.

I’m a huge proponent of continuing study after high school. It doesn’t have to be at WKU necessarily. That’s an area where I think the entire commonwealth is challenged. We have 4,000 open jobs today in south-central Kentucky and about 1,500 to 2,000 of them require a four-year degree. If you want a job and want to work, come to Bowling Green because we can find one for you.

MG: What do current students, prospective students and their parents indicate are their top priorities and concerns in selecting a school and pursuing postsecondary education?

TC: We’ve seen an uptick in students interested in studying more technical fields. And part of that is an intentional press to recruit more students into science, technology, engineering and math fields. When you look at our enrollment, the areas of growth are in health and human services and in business – our two really strong areas – and then our science and engineering areas. We’ve got three colleges that have grown significantly. Part of the reason is because families like to see a relationship between the degree they’re pursuing and the work they want to do after college. That’s particularly true for first-generation college students. This is a significant investment in their futures, and they want to know that is going to pay off with a good-paying job and a career path. 

We’re having a more challenging time helping young people and their families understand there is great value also in the liberal arts and the social sciences. Being trained in the soft skills, to be able to communicate effectively, to write well, to work together in teams, to apply knowledge to complex situations and create solutions based upon what you know and what that context is – those are in high demand by every employer in our region, and the liberal arts do prepare young people to be able to enter those fields. We have to do a better job articulating that and making sure that our course offerings match the needs of our families and students. 

Last year we went through a process of reevaluating all our degree offerings. We got a lot of news coverage for the programs, minors and certificates we said we were going to stop offering. But what was most exciting is that WKU identified 55 degree programs we are going to completely transform. Instead of asking our faculty what to do, the way universities typically do it, we’re going to look at the marketplace and ask the folks hiring our students, ‘What do you need, and how do we build our curriculum to match the market’s demands?’ Then we’re going to go to our students and their families and ask what they are seeking in a college experience and a degree. Based upon that and other collected data, we’re going to transform the curriculum of those 55 programs. That’s a remarkably exciting venture for any university, and will link us more tightly to the applicant market and to that employer base.

MG: WKU’s new Strategic Plan document calls for transforming the advising process for students. What changes are occurring?

TC: Advising has become ever more complicated. More than young people picking classes, it’s actually about connecting them to resources in a way that helps students be successful. Instead of having faculty or advisers spread all across campus, we want to create a one-stop shop to get advising questions answered. Certainly that is about what courses they need to take to be successful and graduate in four years, but it’s also about making sure if they have financial aid issues, if they have mental health issues, if they have just-fitting-in issues, that our centralized advisers are prepared to support those young people. Now, instead of getting the run-around from office to office, first- and second-year students can get all of those services taken care of in a single spot with a single adviser in a central location. We think that’s part of the reason we moved the retention number so significantly in the past year.

MG: What impacts are expected from the recent opening of the UK College of Medicine Bowling Green program here?

TC: We’re proud of the partnership between The Medical Center, Western Kentucky University and the University of Kentucky Medical School to open a four-year medical program here in Bowling Green. We know there’s a physician shortage and that physicians are likely to practice where they study. This year fully half the seats taken in that class were WKU students, so we think it’s a strong partnership to address the physician shortage. It’s also a terrific pipeline program for our young people who want to study at WKU and stay here for medical school. It’s incredibly exciting.

MG: What campus capital projects has WKU undertaken in recent years, and what projects are now on the drawing boards?

TC: In the past couple of years, we’ve opened two new facilities. Ogden College Hall, a science building that was a state-supported project, helps ensure we have top-of-the-line science and engineering facilities for our students. It opened in spring 2018. In fall 2018, we opened Hilltopper Hall, which is about a 500-bed residential facility. 

Going forward, we’ll complete two significant projects in the next 18 months or two years. The Commons Project is reconceptualizing the Helm Library at WKU. Libraries are no longer book repositories or material warehouses. Our young people are looking for a place to work together on projects, to have applied learning spaces. Through a partnership with Aramark, the library will transform into a place where our entire community – faculty, students and staff – can gather over a meal to work through projects, have social time together, and create an intellectual hub where all of WKU can gather. That project is about $35 million. It will enable us to take down Garrett Hall and return the top of the hill to our first President Henry Hardin Cherry’s vision for College Heights over the next two years.

Even more exciting, and completely focused on student success, is the new First-Year Village we’re building at the bottom of the hill. We’re taking down two residence halls, Bemis Lawrence and Barnes Campbell, that have reached the end of their useful life. I challenged our Residence Life team to think differently about residential education. Beginning in the spring 2021 and fully opening in fall 2021, we’re going to have 1,000 beds built in pod-style. Instead of entering with 3,000 first-year students, you’ll enter with 24 who live with you in one of these First-Year Village facilities. You’ll share academic interests, have a peer advisor who lives alongside you, and a faculty mentor who’s assigned to the 24 students based upon their academic interests and the faculty member’s interests. We’re going to block-schedule courses, where you take one, two, three courses together with the folks with whom you’re living, perhaps one taught by that faculty mentor. By doing that, the 150 hours a week students spend outside of class becomes as important as the 15 or 18 they spend inside of class. Participation in those living-learning communities is going to be transformative for that first-year experience.

We’re moving toward an Oxford/Cambridge-style model in that first year, where we get a smaller number of students directly engaged with a faculty member for a year. What we’re able to do at a WKU tuition price point, which is tens of thousands of dollars less than other four-year institutions in the state, and that level of faculty-freshman engagement will be a remarkable accomplishment.

MG: As you plan and execute the university’s goals and projects, how much interaction is there between WKU, local government and the business community in Bowling Green and the nearby region?

TC: We are completely intertwined. What’s good for Western Kentucky is good for Bowling Green, and what’s good for Bowling Green is good for Western Kentucky. We all have the shared goal of elevating the economy of south-central Kentucky. I sit on the Bowling Green Chamber board with the mayor and county judge-executive, and we are constantly having conversations focused on workforce development, improving the local community and tax base, and recruiting new businesses to the area. In my career I have not been in a community that gets economic development and the relationship between the business community, the university and local government as well as Bowling Green does. We are a model community for that.

MG: Public financial and revenue limitations have steered Kentucky’s postsecondary institutions into educational specialties and niches, since it’s unaffordable for all schools to “have everything.” What are WKU’s specializations?

TC: What we do incredibly well and I’m most proud of are our engineering programs, our health programs – including a remarkable nursing program and doctor of physical therapy program – and our education programs. WKU began as a “normal school,” and education remains core to who we are as a university.

We have one of the finest journalism programs in the world and we have the best photojournalism program in the United States and the world, bar none. We  invest significantly in it, and our young people bring great attention to the institution by winning awards every single year for the work they do in student journalism.

Another thing for which we are remarkably proud is our communications program and the performance of our forensics team. They won the national championship last year in speech and debate.

One of the newer programs we’re getting a great deal of attention for is our meteorology program. Meteorology requires an intensive math component, and this is a program of about 50 students, all of whom are in high demand across the country. The number of television meteorology broadcasters who are WKU students and alumni is remarkable. We have many across the commonwealth and all across the country who are on television, but they also go to work for companies doing forecasting and for the National Weather Service.

We have an incredible legacy of success in agriculture and many of my colleagues at land-grant institutions would be envious of our 900-acre farm that is five minutes from campus. Our agriculture programs are second to none in the state, and they’re applied in nature. From the FFA motto, we want them “learning to do,” but also “doing to learn,” so that it’s not instruction in a classroom separate from the real world but actually taking that knowledge and making it usable, having ideas put into action.

MG: How would you characterize the relationships among Kentucky’s various university and college presidents?

TC: I’m thankful to have a set of colleagues who understand the challenges that we’re all facing, who work collaboratively to address those challenges, and also serve as wonderful sounding boards when dealing with difficult issues. I’ve found the community of university presidents here in Kentucky much more collaborative than competitive.

MG: At WKU what type of student and classes most use online learning? What are the overall trends?

TC: We have a significant number of degree programs that can be pursued online exclusively. Our regional campuses in Owensboro, Elizabethtown and Glasgow have become hubs for young and older people who are pursuing a college degree online but want a physical space to be able to come to. We have close to 3,000 students who are primarily online learners. That is an important and growing marketplace.

But what’s more interesting is how we’ve blended online and in-person education through our traditional students here on campus, helping them do outside-of-class things that used to take up class time. They can do readings, watch lectures, be prepared, and when they come to class, apply that knowledge in a way that helps make it much more relevant. In addition to online-only degree programs, technology will help us be even more creative and effective for every one of our students. Matching testing and measurement to when they need it versus our normal schedule, but also helping them come prepared in a way that makes the in-time class more exciting than many people might remember. We know on-the-stage lectures are not the best way for young people to learn.

MG: What is the current trend in majors? Which categories are up and down, and why?

TC: We see our technical areas being oversubscribed. If I had the seat space I could probably double the size of our nursing program, but that comes with issues. Our engineering, our science, our technology programs are all in great demand. We also are seeing business and entrepreneurship as something young people in the area are wanting to pursue. Just south of our main campus we’re building an innovation campus; it is formerly known as the Center for Research and Development and more colloquially known as “The Old Mall.” We are creating a space where the university and businesses and our students and our faculty all come together to create new businesses, have a space for entrepreneur students to have their ideas incubated and spun off, and to provide small business support for those in our region who are building companies. Business is attracting a great deal of attention.

MG: If someone in the private sector wants to get into WKU’s feedback system on the workforce skills needs or find out what skills grads have that could benefit them, how do they do this?

TC: The local Workforce Board is co-located on our campus. We’re trying to create a tightly-knit pipeline between the employers of our region, the folks who are supporting that workforce development through local government, and the university. We’re moving toward integrating our hiring systems and the systems that help young people looking for jobs as seniors and juniors to know what’s available in the local area. Our career center is pressing that senior year is much too late to begin thinking about what you’re going to do for a job. We have to begin those conversations the week students set foot on our campus their first year. Plotting out how one develops an understanding of industry, the skills necessary to be successful, the relationships that will help open doors, and what that career looks like all takes time. We’re working hard to drive that down to the freshman year. Our career center does that, and that’s the easiest entry point for any business to get engaged with us. Our Business and Industry Round Table partners with business across the region to help them with not just workforce needs but research needs, and any other relationship that’s beneficial for them that we can create.

MG: What is Western’s annual budget this year? What do the revenue and spending pies look like?

TC: We’re under a half-billion dollars, and that number has gotten a little smaller the last couple years. Even though we’ve gone through some internal reallocations, our budget has remained pretty steady. There are significant fixed-cost increases every year, but we’ve managed to reduce some expenditures by being more efficient as an institution. We have a new budget model designed to be decentralized and reward success at the college level, to empower our deans to make strategic choices around enrollment and research, and reward success with additional resources. 

We need to make sure that what scarce dollars we’re spending, we’re spending in the place where they’re most effective. We’re about a half-billion dollar organization, but within that there is flexibility and resources shift. Tuition is an ever-more-important, unfortunately, portion of our budget. We know that makes families and their students more pressed to be able to afford a college education, which is one reason we’ve begun moving financial aid down the need curve to help more students – and to realize that we need students to finish in four years, do everything we can to keep them on track, take the number of hours necessary to be successful, and graduate in four years if possible.

MG: How important is development, the university’s own fundraising, in WKU’s overall budget and planning process today?

TC: We would not be able to do all the terrific things we’re pursuing without the significant investment of alumni and friends. The past two years, we’ve seen the largest and second largest fundraising totals in university history, and we will launch a comprehensive fundraising campaign in the spring. For us to continue our institutional climb and elevate our regional, national, international reputations, we need alumni and investors to place their money with us – to help make sure our students can afford to come, that our faculty are rewarded and we can attract the most outstanding faculty in the nation, and ensure our facilities are second-to-none. The full WKU experience is what we’re building toward, but in such a way that we don’t price ourselves out of the market. Our donors are the most important investors we have. We’re proud of the fact that we have such a broad base of donors as an institution.

It is homecoming week on the hill. We have tens of thousands of alumni coming back to Bowling Green. It’s a wonderful celebration of not just the university, but more importantly, the experience and relationships that those alumni build while they’re on the hill. WKU truly is a family, and this week we’re going to be celebrating that.


Mark Green is executive editor of The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected]

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