"This is a fulfillment of prophecy," Kim B. Clark, BYU-Idaho president, told the Church News. "We tried to keep in mind and remember that the growth of the university is both evidence of and a manifestation of prophetic guidance. It was President Gordon B. Hinckley in 2000 who set all this in motion. …
"He knew, or sensed, that the Church was going to see a growing need for increased education and more and more people seeking to pursue higher education. … And then over the years both President Hinckley and President Monson have both been amazingly supportive and interested in and guided in what is happening here."
In the face of a declining pool nationwide of the Church's 18-year-old demographic of prospective students, the percentage of those young people applying to Church schools is growing, said President Clark.
"What we are seeing here at BYU-Idaho has been for the last decade a very interesting example of more and more families and prospective students in the Church turning to Church education."
Whether it is the spiritual learning woven in to secular subjects, the quality of the education or the relatively low cost that Church schools provide in comparison to other universities, the number of students applying and actually attending is on the rise.
Because of this increasing student body — both on the Rexburg, Idaho, campus and by online programs available throughout the world — administrators at BYU-Idaho have had to choose wisely how the university would handle growth, allowing Ricks College to transform into the four-year university BYU-Idaho is today.
Roots in Ricks College
The mission of Ricks College — now BYU-Idaho — is one element that has not changed, and will never change, said President Clark.
"We have worked hard to ensure that the spirit on this campus does not change," he said. "The spiritual feeling that you will have on this campus, and the closeness that you feel to the Lord while you are here — we want that to never change."
In order to preserve the "Spirit of Ricks," and to continue the legacy, professors have been charged to have their primary focus on their students. Small class sizes, an emphasis on student-teacher interaction and letting students lead in activities have been guiding principles as the college adapts to a larger crowd. President Clark also emphasized the importance of the honor code as a crucial element to a student's education.
"[The honor code] hasn't changed one bit in terms of the basic commandments of the Lord ... [and] the honor code has remained at the center of the school."
Establishing "what we aren't"
When President Hinckley made the announcement in 2000 that Ricks College would become BYU-Idaho and a four-year university, more than just the name needed to change. Conscious choices made by administrators have determined how the organization would continue, establishing what kind of an education the university would and would not offer. With an ever-increasing enrollment at the university, changes to accommodate growth have been necessary. It was decided that not all of the hallmarks often associated with a university status would come with the change.
"We could become a different kind of university, mostly in terms of our focus and what we would not try to do that many traditional universities do," said Henry J. Eyring, advancement vice president at BYU-Idaho, who also co-authored the book, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out" with Harvard business professor Clayton M. Christensen.
Graduate degrees would not be offered at BYU-Idaho, there would not be any collegiate athletic programs and the university would not rank professors — encouraging them to focus their efforts on teaching and interacting with their students, rather than in research.
"It is very unusual to have a university without any faculty titles or rank — except member of the faculty," President Clark said. "We have a very, very strong focus on teaching as the primary role of the faculty and being very student centered. We work really hard to find people who teach with commitment to the Church and to the Lord."
Different than the norm
Just more than a year after President Hinckley announced the plans for BYU-Idaho, the school was granted provisional accreditation and development of four-year degree programs were under way. By establishing clearly what the university was not going to do, the doors opened for possibilities of what could be done. Now, more than a decade later, there are various options for a BYU-Idaho education, many of which disrupt the traditional learning model of most universities.
In their book, Brother Eyring and Brother Christensen juxtapose the history of Harvard and Ricks College, detailing what BYU-Idaho is doing to set itself apart from other, older traditional universities (for a more comprehensive review, see the Deseret News article in its national edition, "BYU-I stirs discussion of innovation in education, " published Sept. 18, 2011).
A big part of the difference is BYU-Idaho's focus on online learning. In addition to the 16,773 students living in the Rexburg area who are enrolled in classes on campus, the fall 2012 semester has 6,371 online students — 3,868 more than 2011 — enrolled in the U.S. and throughout the world.
"We are in a new decade of change," Brother Eyring said. "And the major marker in that is the creation of our Pathway program."
Part of these online numbers come from the Pathway program — a program developed for young adults who have not yet earned an associate's or bachelor's degree who are not already enrolled in college. The program mixes online courses and group learning held in local, already existing institute buildings throughout the U.S. and select countries outside of the U.S., and is intended to help individuals get on the path of earning a bachelor's degree — whether it is done at BYU-Idaho or another college or university (see Church News, "Pathway program bringing BYU-Idaho to the students," June 11, 2011).
"Students today are getting a great mix of online and face-to-face class courses," Brother Eyring said. "It is a great thing because you can serve more students on this campus. But the new wave is the one where those courses then begin to go out to students who may never set foot on this campus."
This semester Brother Eyring is team teaching a course that occurs entirely online to students not on the BYU-Idaho campus. Once a week, he and another teacher living in Utah teach a capstone course on analytical thinking and moral judgment. For him, it is a wonderful opportunity to participate in a BYU-Idaho education with students around the world.
"Because the online courses can be offered at low cost we can grow very quickly and very inexpensively and reach people that would otherwise not be able to afford this kind of education," he said.
Establishing a university
Some of the recent growth comes from the online students, but numbers of on-campus students have also consistently risen in the past decade. Some reasons for growth include a creative approach to calendaring. The BYU-Idaho school year is divided into three blocks and students attend two of the three "tracks" during the year. This allows for a year-round operation without any lulls — or an "off season" — usually occurring during spring and summer semesters.
"We have been growing in terms of students in any given year because we are now at a point that the spring semester has the same level of enrollment as the other semesters," Brother Eyring said. "Then you add to that the students that we can serve online and through the Pathway program and you have significant growth rates that seem maintainable."
Although the university still only focuses on undergraduate degrees, recently BYU-Idaho announced a partnership with other universities within their region to provide students an opportunity for a quicker track to a graduate degree.
In the spring of 2012, BYU-Idaho announced plans to partner with Idaho State University to make it possible for BYU-Idaho students to complete both a bachelor's and master's degree in certain subjects in as little as five years through early admission to Idaho State University's graduate programs after certain requirements are met.
Later that year, the school announced that beginning in January 2013, Utah State University will offer a Master of Business Administration degree on-site at BYU-Idaho as part of a new agreement between the two universities. These programs will help students transition to graduate programs at other schools, while still maintaining a BYU-Idaho undergraduate program.
A rising profile
"The standing of BYU-Idaho in the minds of families and perspective students has grown," President Clark said. "People are more aware of BYU-Idaho and what we offer, and what opportunities are here. I think that has influenced the decisions people have made about where to go to school. We are seeing more people apply and more people come."
Not only has the profile of BYU-Idaho grown within the homes of Church members, but also within the academic community. People are starting to ask more than where the Rexburg campus is located on a map; rather, they are asking what is going on at the small-town university.
John D. Basie, director at IMPACT 360, an academic program located in Pine Mountain, Ga., that focuses on integrating Christian values into secular education, read Brother Eyring's and Brother Clayton's book and decided his program could learn from what is going on at BYU-Idaho.
In order to understand how the growing university works, he and a group of seven others involved in education visited the Idaho campus on Oct. 9. While there they listened to a devotional and spent time with administrators, educators and students.
"The vibrancy of the spiritual light that we saw there was not a surprise to me," Mr. Basie said. "As we listened to the students talk about their course work [and how they] live ... it was very clear that the university is doing some very intentional things."
President Clark said that although there have been and still will be some growing pains, the faculty and students are what really make BYU-Idaho stand out.
"The people here are consecrated," President Clark said. "Through it all, the light of the gospel shines through their eyes. They are inspiring to be around. ... The light in their eyes and in the faces show they are faithful. They love the Lord. They are humble and grateful to be here. They are excited about what they are learning, and they look forward to the future with some concern and worries, but with a lot of faith."