Evan Ramstad
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When I visited Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter last fall, the window for early-admission applications had just closed and administrators were encouraged by the numbers the school received.

Since then, a total meltdown of the federal government's student aid system has thrown admissions at Gustavus and most colleges in the country into chaos.

"There's just this massive disruption to college next year. I mean, you could see a smaller student body not because of anything that you've done just simply because of this glitch," Rebecca Bergman, Gustavus' president, said in a conversation just a few days before May 1, the date students normally commit to fall enrollment.

The U.S. Department of Education's attempt to streamline FAFSA, the application process for obtaining financial aid, was meant to simplify things for students and their families, in part by relying on tax data sent from the IRS. However, for more than 20% of applicants, the wrong tax data got used. The agencies have struggled to correct the issues.

Earlier in April, Bergman and the college announced that she would retire in spring 2025, giving Gustavus trustees a bit more than a year to find a successor. She has led Gustavus since June 2014, after retiring from a 26-year career at Medtronic. In her final role at the medtech giant in Fridley, she led research in the cardiac rhythm disease management unit.

Following the retirement announcement, I wanted to catch up with Bergman and get her thoughts about how her business career affected her academic one. First, though, we needed to address the admissions crisis, a development that has been overshadowed in the national media by student protests over the Israeli-Hamas conflict at a few large universities.

Because federal funding is the first step in a student's financial aid package, every step after that has been delayed. Once a college like Gustavus hears what a prospective student qualifies for in federal aid, the school would turn to state funds and then add in its own assistance.

One result of the glitches is that the number of students applying for financial aid is down 29% from a year ago. Bergman called it a "debacle" and worries that it will spill over to enrollment this fall. Last fall, Gustavus enrolled 499 new students, an increase after four consecutive years of decline.

Reflecting on our November meeting when early application data signaled another uptick was on the way for the school, Bergman said, "This [debacle] was not on the horizon."

At that time, Gustavus' faculty and administrators had just agreed on a new curriculum designed to keep the college competitive through the dip in potential new students in the rest of the decade. Births across the U.S. fell after the 2008 recession and those students are about to reach college age.

"Every cycle has its uncertainties," Bergman said. "But the uncertainties this year feel big."

Besides the immediate enrollment challenge, Bergman has a list of things to finish in the next year. At the top is rolling out the new curriculum, which is designed to give Gusties an edge in the LinkedIn age. The school reduced its required coursework and promised each student a "signature experience," such as an internship or research project, that employers or graduate schools will find distinctive.

"We write it in our vision statement that they're to be equipped for purposeful lives," Bergman said. "That's more than words for us. I believe students today are looking to find purpose. In the Lutheran colleges we call that vocation or calling. And we want our students to be able to link that to their skills, their talents and their dreams and make a difference."

Like many other professions, college presidency is changing. Institutions are finding leaders who are more diverse, in gender and race but also experience.

Academic backgrounds still dominate, but about one-fourth of higher education institutions sign on leaders like Bergman, who spent their careers in business. She had been a Gustavus Adolphus trustee for seven years before becoming president, making her an "insider outsider." The University of Minnesota tapped Jeff Ettinger, former Hormel Foods CEO, as interim president. Becky Roloff, a former executive at Ameriprise and the YWCA of Minneapolis, is just ending an eight-year tenure as president at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.

"I wasn't sure how we show up as leaders between these two very different environments. But what I found is that 99 percent of leadership is transferable. I am not a different leader than I was," Bergman said. "Shared governance is different."

Early in her time at Gustavus, Bergman recalls trying to appoint faculty members to a planning committee. "Oh no, no, no. I don't get to say which faculty members I want. That was a three-month process to have the faculty elect some people to be part of strategic planning," she said.

"That was important in the long run," Bergman added. "In the world of higher ed, if you plan properly, all the rest will go smoothly."