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Notes on the February 2018 BoT Report

Sunday, March 18, 2018 5:18 PM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

Dear NOLS Instructors,

I finally found the time to read the most recent Report to the NOLS Board of Trustees.  These documents, which are published in January, June, and October each year, are the best source of information for the instructor who’d like to understand how the school functions.  This NIA believes that working instructors should have a voice in school-wide decisions.  We are, after all, by far the largest group of NOLS employees.  The more informed the Instructor Corps is, the easier it is for us to make this case.  Towards this end, we recommend that all instructors spend some time looking through each of these reports.  (You don’t need to read the whole report to glean valuable knowledge.  Some sections obviously don’t apply to non-Trustees.)  You can find the full report here on Iko Wapi.

If you don’t have time to look through the full report, or you still need convincing, here are a selection of excerpts that I found interesting, with some light analysis given in italics.  Of course some of these may not be interesting you you.  On the other hand there is a lot more pertinent info in the report that I chose not to highlight here, for the sake of brevity.  The excerpts are grouped topically.  


Excerpts from the January Report to the Board of Trustees

NOLS Rocky Mountain

P.33: “NOLS Rocky Mountain educates nearly 2100 students vs. 3470 for all other NOLS locations combined. Forty-one percent of all student days occur at the five locations in which NOLS Rocky Mountain operates.”  These stats speak to expedition student days and don’t include most classroom student days.  Still, it’s interesting that the RM is almost as large as all of our other Field bases put together.

Dollars and Sense

P.32: “While we don’t have perfect comparison data we know that 15 years ago that employees’ satisfaction with pay and benefits was about 1%. Now, satisfaction is at about 40% (with 50% being the national average).”  This seems like a remarkably positive spin to put on a 40% satisfaction rate.  Nevertheless, the point remains that NOLS has consistently, if incrementally, raised wages over the last 15 years, with the cumulative result being significantly higher compensation today than at the beginning of this period. 

P. 132: “Work-Life Balance – Benefits and pay are a real struggle for this group. If we are not able to make improvements in these areas, we should work to provide maximum flexibility in regards to work-life balance, which may cause people to consider the non-monetary reasons for staying with the company.”  The group in question is Field Faculty.

P. 38: “It appears that we could be on the brink of nationwide increases in inflation and compensation. Unemployment is also low enough that it could influence our ability to retain and attract employees.”  As John Gans points out here, NOLS compensation structure doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  It seems possible that satisfaction with NOLS compensation could stagnate or even decline, despite increases, if these increases don’t track or better compensation increases in the countries in which we operate.

P.77: “$102,237,000” NOLS’ Total Assets as of December 31, 2017.  NOLS has a lot of money.  To be sure, this isn’t exclusively “cash on hand.”  This figure includes endowment funds, the value of capital assets, and even receivables - money NOLS is owed but hasn’t collected yet.  Nevertheless, the point stands: NOLS has become a very large company with very significant assets, and these assets are growing rapidly.  By way of comparison, in October of 2005, the number was $41,668,000. 

Profit versus Sustainability 

p.34: “With the change in the administration in the White House we have some legislation that has a better chance of passing now than it has in the past regarding larger group sizes.”  We don’t need to do a complex economic analysis (although I suspect someone at NOLS has) in order to know that a larger group size makes it easier for NOLS to net more income from a given course.  We also know that larger groups have a larger environmental impact.  Where is the balance point between increased income and maintaining our environmental ethics? 

Instructor Development

P.34:  “Regarding accreditation: universities are checking the academic level of our instructors. Consider using scholarship funds to send some of our faculty to get Masters of Education degrees.”  This was a comment from an individual trustee.  A nice idea, to say the least.

Conceptualizing Enrollment and Revenue 

P. 67: “Revenue from our Expedition programs is lower than at this time last year and we also project that we will fall below our budget target for the year. In addition, we are projecting that Wilderness Medicine revenue will fall below budget due to lower than expected enrollment in the Wilderness Medicine and Rescue Semester. (It is of note that Wilderness Medicine classroom enrollment is tracking ahead of budget. This is leading us to project that total operating revenue will be lower than budget, though higher than last year.”

P. 83: “The Wilderness Medicine and Rescue Semester (WMR) is not the semester silver bullet we had hoped. In past years it has seemed to be the one “sure” thing for semester enrollment. Sadly this spring that is proving to not be the case, with the WMR significantly under-enrolled.”

P.122: “Wilderness Medicine may be the one exception. It confronts a hefty challenge to meet its revenue target this year. Despite significant growth in classroom programs (students, student days, and courses), disappointing forecasted spring enrollment on the Wilderness Medicine Rescue Semester creates a challenging financial gap to bridge through the rest of the fiscal year. Wilderness Medicine is looking at options to create additional classroom capacity in the Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician program to offset some of the loss in revenue.”  

These three quotes together provide an interesting case study in how NOLS administration conceives of concepts such as “expected enrollment” and “loss of revenue.”  The way these terms are used is non-intuitive, at least to me.  To read these quotes, you would think that WMR enrollment had collapsed catastrophically.  This is, in fact, not the case.  WMR sections have a capacity of 15.  In previous springs NOLS has run two sections of the WMR.  In 2018, a third was added, bringing capacity up to 45.  As of the writing of the Report to the Board of Trustees, there were 32 WMR students enrolled in Spring semesters - more students than had ever taken a Spring WMR in the past (see p. 96).  As far as I can tell, “loss of revenue” doesn’t actually mean earning less money than in previous years, it just means earning less than the goal NOLS had set for itself.  (It’s worth noting that NOLS can literally lose money on a course if that specific course is under enrolled.  It’s also worth noting that as I write this, both sections of the Fall 2018 WMR are, I believe, fully enrolled.    

The Changing Face of NOLS

P. 90: “High-school segment growth is masking core college segment declines.”


P.121: “We have an incredibly robust IC applicant pool this year with roughly a 4:1 ratio of applicants to available roster spots.“ 

Employee Retention

P.127: “I have reported over the last decade the fact that we are consistently challenged by high turnover in our support positions. In FY17 our turnover rate was 35% and predominantly in positions below the management level.”  From the Wilderness Medicine Report.

P. 129 “More than one third of this office has turned over within the last six months;”  From the Field Staffing Office report.

P. 150: “All team members are performing well and seem to fit at NOLS and in Lander, which has not always been true with IS hires. The compensation changes that we made in September, 2015 and have recently tweaked have definitely contributed to our ability to recruit and keep programmers.” 

P. 130: “Find ways to effectively develop and retain the instructors we need for a shortened, heightened peak, as off-season work continues to decline.”  An alarming sentence.  The more field work becomes compressed into a mid-summer peak, the less possible it will be to make a living as a NOLS field instructor.

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