EPHRAIM, Sanpete County — It’s been almost a year now since Scott Wyatt, president of Snow College and a card-carrying member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sat down in his TV room to watch the Saturday morning session of October General Conference — the one where LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson opened with the announcement that the church was lowering its mission age from 19 to 18.
“I sat through the rest of conference,” says Wyatt, “but that was the last thing I heard.”
His initial thought: “We’re in trouble!” Then, after he had time to think about it: “We’re in serious trouble!”
President at Snow since 2007, he knew what they are: a two-year school in rural Utah where 90 percent of the students are LDS and a majority are fresh out of high school.
On Monday, the first day of work after General Conference, Wyatt was driving to the Salt Lake airport to fly to an out-of-state meeting. Halfway there he did a u-turn, called his office, cancelled his flight, and fled back to Ephraim. He summoned the staff — vice presidents, advisers, recruiters, branding folks, the design team, everyone he could think of — to his office, where they circled the wagons and started brainstorming. Snow might be heading into its 125th year, he told them, but it might be without any students.
A year later, Wyatt is happy to relive those days of angst and panic for one simple reason: It didn’t happen.
The Snow College of 2013 is almost exactly the same size as the Snow College of 2012.
“It looks like we’re up five students. We won’t be able to break everything down perfectly for another two weeks, but that’s probably what it will end up being. Five students up,” says Wyatt as he stands on the steps of the administration building and delivers this news — while wearing a we-just-won-the-Super-Bowl grin.
Every other college in Utah is reporting a drop in attendance, but at Snow — the school with the most to lose; the school all the others felt sorry for — attendance is up.
And not only is it slightly up overall, the reason is the freshman class, which is way up. A year ago there were some 1,700 first-years walking about Ephraim. This year there are 2,500. It’s the second-year class that’s been rocked, dropping nearly 75 percent from last year’s 1,300 to this year’s 500. (Snow’s total enrollment, counting a satellite campus in Richfield and outreach programs around the state, is approximately 4,600 students.)
“We have the youngest student body in our history,” says Wyatt. “People are shocked.”
And not just shocked, but curious.
Everyone has the same question: How did you pull this off?
“We tried really hard to fine-tune our brand,” answers Wyatt. “I think we crafted a message people started to hear.”
The message spelled out the school’s strong points three ways:
One, Snow College is the No. 1 two-year school in America.
No idle comment there, but one that can be empirically backed up by the three groups that rank two-year schools based on such criteria as graduation rates, transfer rates and success of alumni. Out of some 1,200 two-year schools in the country, CNN/Money has Snow at No. 6, Bestschools.org ranks Snow No. 8 and Washington Monthly places Snow No. 9.
“Since Snow is the only school in the top 10 in all three rankings, we think we have a case that we are the top-ranked two-year college in America,” says Wyatt.
Two, Snow College is affordable.
“Nobody understands what that means so we spell it out,” says Wyatt. “We explain that if you pay tuition, fees and housing at Snow it’s going to cost you less than you’d pay for just tuition and fees at larger universities.”
In other words, you can live at home and commute to Weber State or the University of Utah or fill-in-the-blank, OR you can move out of your parents’ basement and live in Ephraim and it will cost you less money.
Three, Snow College is fun.
“People say, ‘But there’s no mall,’” says Wyatt. “Our answer: imagine living within a couple of blocks of 3,000 people your age. Your entire social life is right here. You don’t need a mall.”
The sales pitch worked so well that this year’s first-year class includes more than double the amount of freshmen from the populous Wasatch Front over a year ago.
Wyatt says they started seeing signs late last spring that the surge might be coming, but it wasn’t until August that reason for optimism was confirmed by an unprecedented demand to enroll.
In a year when 18-year-olds were supposed to be an endangered species, they have flocked to Ephraim in unprecedented numbers.
Wyatt shakes his head that they pulled it off.
“We don’t have juniors and seniors, we’re the most LDS of any school in the state, with the youngest students, mostly Utahns,” he says, still a bit traumatized by the odds that were against them.
Crazy what happens when you decide to talk about your strengths.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org