“A Conversation about Ricks College,” Ensign, Sept. 1990, 76–78
On 1 July 1989, Steven D. Bennion became president of Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho. Before his appointment to Ricks, he had been president of Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, for seven years and had worked in the Wisconsin System of Higher Education for ten years.
The Ensign recently spoke with President Bennion to learn more about Ricks College and about the first year of his administration.
Q.: What kind of public image do you think Ricks has today?
A.: This is a campus with a diverse cross-section. Geographically, all fifty states and more than forty foreign countries are represented. We also have a rich blend academically, culturally, and socio-economically; on this campus, you will find high-honors students who could have gone to prestigious universities, a range of people in the middle, and academic late-bloomers, as well as people with learning disabilities. That wide diversity presents an academic challenge, but it’s workable—and refreshing. It reflects life’s variety.
Q.: Is it getting harder for students to be accepted to Ricks?
A.: Up until a year ago, I would have said no. But now the board of trustees has established an enrollment ceiling of 7,500 daytime students. With the growth in the Church and more students applying, the reality is that we are starting to turn people down—which is not something we relish.
To date, the requirements for admission have basically included three things: (1) graduation from high school or equivalent and a completed application form; (2) your scores from the ACT exam; and (3) a signed recommendation from your bishop that says you agree to uphold the code of honor and dress and grooming standards. Academically, our admission requirements are not too rigorous. Our students have to perform once they get here, but we try to meet them where they are and help them progress from there.
Until now, we’ve taken people on a first-come, first-served basis. But we’re having to refine that to make our policy as equitable as possible, because better students usually apply earlier. We want to reward those who prepare and plan ahead, but we may also need to reserve some spots for people who may not be eager beavers initially but who vitally need additional education. Frankly, it’s going to be a balancing effort.
Q.: What are the advantages of your admission policy?
A.: Ours is a worldwide church with people from many backgrounds. If we had very selective admission requirements, we would rule out some students who can really benefit from attending Ricks.
I think another reason that our open-door policy is important is students have great opportunities to receive training in our vocational and high-tech programs. In society, we probably err in thinking that everyone needs a bachelor’s degree. At Ricks College, nearly a third of our programs are occupational.
Q.: How many vocational graduates do you place?
A.: Our placement varies by program—and is very good in many of them. Two years ago, we started a placement office, which now has two professional placement officers. We’re seeing excellent progress. For example, representatives from about thirty-five hospitals came to campus this year to interview the graduates of our two-year registered-nursing program. We’re finding a lot of interest in our students—and it’s growing.
Q.: Ricks recently went through an accreditation study. What did you learn from that?
A.: We learned that others are recognizing the supportive, helpful environment here. The first paragraph of the report said, “The outstanding characteristic of Ricks College is the high degree of trust that exists between faculty, administrators, and students.” We don’t always agree, but I believe we have a healthy respect for differences and a willingness to say that what we do agree on is most important.
Our faculty members were seen as being very student-oriented. Student satisfaction with their instruction was rated very high. We have master teachers who are teaching freshmen and sophomores, and for the most part in small to medium-sized classes. Each teacher knows his or her students, and students know their teachers. We feel personalized learning is pivotal.
The pervasiveness of our spiritual mission was amazing to the accreditation team. We have a marvelous religion faculty, although one student told me that the most spiritual experience she ever had was in an English class. Her professor integrated his gospel-based philosophy with literary concepts. When you can blend intellectual and character development together freely and combine them with spiritual development without worrying about whether some group or organization is going to tell you that you can’t discuss those values, wonderful things happen. It’s a holistic approach to education.
We also realized we have room to improve. I’ll give you a couple of examples. We have recently implemented a registration-by-phone system. One of the effects has been that students no longer feel a need to meet with their advisers. Since most students come here wanting to explore and learn, they need an academic adviser for two purposes: (1) to make sure they’re taking the right classes to meet the requirements at Ricks and to explore their interests; (2) to look at what preparation might best lead them into the career options they’re considering.
We’re doing some modest reorganization to strengthen advisement and retention. We have a person in position now to work with transfer issues, to work with the faculty, and to provide information. We feel that’s an important step.
Another thing we need is more space in our library. The services provided received a high rating, but the library is gradually being filled with computer labs and audiovisual services. Since nearly 90 percent of our students live away from home, we need to have additional study space.
Q.: How well do credits from Ricks College transfer to other schools?
A.: Since BYU takes more of our graduates than any other institution does, we have an entire page in our catalog that tells students and faculty members which classes apply to the general education requirements at BYU. If our students, from day one, will work with this and with their assigned advisers, transfer problems will be minimized.
Also, if students know what they are going to major in, they can take classes that will build toward their objective. I think that the biggest challenge in transferring is when students don’t plan—or when they change their majors and then expect everything they’ve done in the past to count.
We are working with BYU to strengthen transfers between our institutions, and they’ve been responsive. BYU does have more selective admissions criteria because of their enrollment demand, so our advice to students is to decide early where they are going after Ricks—and also to have a second option.
We have a considerable number of students who go to other institutions and are treated well in the transfer process, which speaks highly of Ricks College. The state institutions in Utah and Idaho, for the most part, accept our two-year degree as fulfilling their general education requirements. We have completed those agreements in just the last year or two. Further, those colleges have fine LDS institute programs, which are a blessing to students. Students who don’t choose BYU can have a fine educational experience elsewhere.
Q.: What do you see as the challenges that Ricks will face in the next decade?
A.: It’s hard to foresee the needs of society in twenty years when the world is changing so rapidly. In reality, we can plan solidly only about five years in advance. The transfer component will continue to be strong, but the vocational/ occupational programs are going to be critically needed. In fact, some of the biggest shortages right now in our society are of technicians and people who have a good solid base in specialized skills.
Not long ago I was asked to talk about the challenges for Ricks in the nineties. I’ve come up with a seven-point list. Some things we aren’t going to change—like giving top priority to our religious values and character development. There are, however, other changes we need to make. One key priority for us in the immediate future is increased access to state-of-the-art computers. We have about 700 academic personal computers on campus. We hope to increase the number to 1,100 in the next year so that student/faculty access will be even better.
I think it’s also important to continually assess our academic offerings. If some programs are obsolete, we need to update them or phase them out.
I’ve already mentioned career assessment and individual development. We need a greater emphasis on counseling. Also, education at Ricks has historically been hands-on. This is important to maintain, especially in a student’s first two “exploring” years.
I’ve talked about the enrollment ceiling—and because of it we hope to enhance summer school. Our summer enrollment has grown by 50 percent in the last five years—from 2,200 students to 3,500—but summer school can still grow considerably.
We’ll continue to assess building needs. With an enrollment ceiling, we don’t envision many new facilities at Ricks. But with science developments and library pressures, there will be some selected building.
Another aspect is to be good neighbors in the Upper Snake River Valley. Some of our educational programs are particularly helpful to local needs, such as nursing, education, agriculture, and business. Our continuing education programs, our cultural arts, and our athletics are a real plus for the southeastern Idaho area.
Q.: Do you think Ricks will ever become a four-year college?
A.: It was, for about eight years back in the late forties and early fifties. For the future, the answer is in the hands of the board of trustees—but I don’t believe it will happen. While we’re a two-year institution, we can provide a Ricks experience for twice as many students with our facilities, faculty, and staff resources as we could if we were a four-year institution. It is important to remain a good launching base for students—in life, as well as in education and vocations. We’re talking about helping students develop in a balanced way. This is a residential campus, so students’ lives are immersed in the college. Academic, social, spiritual, and leadership development can all take place in this environment.
Q.: How do you feel about Ricks?
A.: I can’t think of an environment where the opportunity for growth is greater. The real test of any institution is what it adds to the lives of those who are part of it. At Ricks, I see so much being added and given. People here enjoy their work—and it shows.