Small private colleges struggling to succeed

A view of the Wheeling University campus, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Wheeling, WV. (Haldan Kirsch/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

The stories of Wheeling, Bethany, Hiram, Thiel, LaRoche and Muskingum demonstrate the challenges

WHEELING, W.Va. — For seven decades, West Virginia’s only Catholic university has educated young adults in this corner of Appalachia, but despite that proud tradition, it entered the summer with an unlikely task.

It had to find a new name.

The words Wheeling Jesuit University no longer fit the struggling institution in this city after cutting every liberal arts major, 21 of its 53 full-time faculty and most Jesuit positions.

A campus that once touted ambitious growth plans lost more than a quarter of its 1,600 students in six years, even as it wooed them with steep price discounts.

So last week, it became just Wheeling University, in a bid to rebrand itself without a Jesuit affiliation.

“We truly feel deep sorrow that this institution is no longer a member,” said Deanna Howes Spiro, a spokeswoman for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities headquartered in Washington, D.C.

There are an estimated 1,700 private, nonprofit colleges, and it’s no secret that many smaller ones are stressed. Experts warn that more of them will merge if not close, for reasons ranging from population loss to growing skepticism about the price and value of a four-year college degree.

Concern runs particularly high in the Midwest and Northeast, regions dotted by decades of plant closings. Seen as most vulnerable are schools of about 1,000 students or less that have modest endowments and draw students mostly from their region.

To compete, many give back a growing share of tuition and fees as financial aid. Nationally, the “tuition discount” rate among private colleges is almost 50%, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

It’s well above that at Wheeling Jesuit, founded in 1954 as the youngest of 28 Jesuit campuses, a part of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.

The school with 1,171 students and tuition and fees of $29,290 returns 74 cents on the dollar to upper-class students and up to 67 cents to freshmen, a burden for a campus with a $13.9 million endowment.

In other states, the toll is evident.

This spring, Vermont’s Green Mountain College closed after 185 years. Its president, Robert Allen, lamented that while the school championed social and environmental sustainability, “We have not been able to assure the economic stability of the college.”

Southern Vermont University in Bennington also closed, and Detroit’s Marygrove College will shutter in December. It cut undergraduate studies in 2017, hoping to survive as a graduate campus. Enrollment of 1,850 students six years ago is now 305.

So worried are Massachusetts higher education officials, they may start monitoring private schools for financial stability using publicly available records, a financial “stress test” of sorts eyed in response to the abrupt demise of Mount Ida College.

Fueling the worry is that families often don’t know if that venerable college with an idyllic campus is what it appears or is on a secret and dangerous financial treadmill.

“The grass will be cut and the dorms will be filled on the day they are merged, closed or acquired,” said Brian Mitchell, a Boston consultant who writes about colleges and himself led institutions including Washington & Jefferson College and Bucknell University.

Between 2004 and 2014, five of the nation’s 1,700 private, nonprofit colleges closed each year, according to Moody’s Investors Service. It predicts the annual rate by this year could nearly triple to 14.

And global consultant EY-Parthenon Education says it’s no temporary blip.

“A decades-long expansion of higher education institutions — a golden era when many of today’s campus leaders came of age — is over,” it wrote in 2016.

More than 700 institutions are at risk for reasons including size, it said.

Wheeling Jesuit’s woes

The Bishop Schmitt Field and Alma Grace McDonough Center, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, at Wheeling University in Wheeling, WV. (Haldan Kirsch/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Wheeling Jesuit grew from a collaboration between the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and the Society of Jesus. Initially, the school counted 12 Jesuits and four lay professors among its staff and enrolled 90 freshmen in September 1955 as the GI Bill was aiding a mass expansion of higher education.

Crossing the university’s sloping, well-kept acreage this month offered little hint of turmoil. Redbrick halls are set against gentle hillsides, and the new football program has an attractive field. A just-hired men’s basketball coach suggests a place moving forward.

Even so, employees of the still-unnamed campus were scrambling to recruit a residential class of unspecified size. One dorm is being repurposed as the physical therapy program moves back on campus.

Initially, Wheeling Jesuit officials agreed to an interview with the school’s president, Michael P. Mihalyo Jr., but then declined.

In a statement, the university said it seeks a path forward and believes it can prepare students in health care, business and the social sciences, while building enrollment.

Even without liberal arts majors, “our continuing programs will be well grounded in liberal studies that include practical knowledge, prospective, ethics and values,” the statement said.

The school will retain its Catholic identity and a Jesuit presence through campus ministry and service, even with April’s announcement that its affiliation with the Maryland Province is ending, campus officials said.

The school’s plight is complicated by a scandal involving the diocese and former bishop, Michael Bransfield, who resigned amid a Vatican investigation into claims of sexual abuse and financial improprieties.

In 2017, the diocese acquired Wheeling Jesuit’s campus and assumed its $32.4 million in debt. The diocese leases the campus back to the school, which operates separately, for $1 a year, school spokeswoman Julia Cook said.

She declined to say why a buyout was needed, noting it predates the current administration. Employees say debt worries date to the 1990s.

Explaining budget woes since 2017, Ms. Cook cited a gap between “highly discounted” tuition and academic, athletic and other program costs, a challenge familiar to many campuses, she said.

The result is a place with 27 academic programs just a few years ago now is down to 11: Bachelor’s programs in business, psychology, criminal justice, nursing, exercise sciences, respiratory care and education, plus masters’ of business administration, education leadership and nursing, as well as a doctoral program in physical therapy, she said.

Athletics were spared as they engender pride and are “a substantial percentage of our student population,” officials said.

Liberal arts weren’t the only programs axed.

Wheeling University (WJU) engineering student Sam Nau poses for a portrait, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Wheeling, WV. Nah is transferring to West Virginia University in the Fall after WJU eliminated his major. (Haldan Kirsch/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Samuel Nau, 23, of Wheeling, learned this spring that his engineering major was eliminated.

The school offered him a path to graduation that included independent study and accepting previously rejected transfer credits.

But upper-level engineering “is not something you can study without guidance,” said Mr. Nau, who will finish his degree at West Virginia University.

“My professors had no idea,” he said of the program’s demise. “I definitely feel cheated, but I also believe the school tried to make the best of a crappy situation.

“It’s not Wheeling Jesuit anymore.”

Fewer potential customers

The Erma Ora Byrd Center for Educational Technologies , Tuesday, July 16, 2019, at Wheeling University in Wheeling, WV. (Haldan Kirsch/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Colleges accustomed to filling dorms with 18-to-22-year-olds know well that high school graduate numbers are stagnant nationally, and in parts of the U.S. are projected to fall through 2030.

During those years, the Midwest could see 93,000 (12%) fewer high school graduates and the Northeast could shed 72,000 graduates (11%), says the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia are among states facing sizable losses.

Some argue that if weaker institutions fold, so be it.

Others say American higher education’s strength lies partly in diversity of institutions. With each closure, a path to success is lost.

Small private colleges produce innovative graduates, not just in the liberal arts, but in the hard sciences and business.

Robert Noyce, co-inventor of the microchip that ushered in the information age, brought home physics and math degrees from Grinnell College in Iowa in 1949.

Pioneering transplant surgeon Thomas Starzl received a biology degree in 1947 from Westminster College in Fulton, Mo.

Before she became an Oscar award-winning actress starring in movies including “Fargo’” and “Almost Famous,” Frances McDormand studied theater and graduated from West Virginia’s Bethany College in 1979.

Then there are economic and cultural impacts.

Wheeling University

Cost to attend:

Total enrollment: 1,124 (fall 2017)

Endowment: $13.9 million

Founded: 1954

Source: National Center for Education Statistics | Graphic: Ed Yozwick/Post-Gazette

Wheeling Jesuit’s imprint on Ohio and Marshall counties ranges from local cash register sales to visits by grade school children to explore aerospace and other science in an educational technologies center named for the late Erma Ora Byrd, wife of deceased U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, both campus supporters.

“We will have to adapt,” Ohio County Commissioner Tim McCormick said of the campus changes. “Unfortunately, we really don’t know what’s going to transpire up there.”

Robert Yahn, 58, grew up just over the hill from the 65-acre campus incorporated in 1954 as Wheeling College.

Leaving home, he flew U-2 aircraft and had an assignment at the Air Force Academy during a three-decade military career. An engineer by training, his credentials including a University of Pennsylvania degree could have led him anywhere.

But he never lost sight of his roots.

“I always wanted to come back to Wheeling,” he said.

Arriving at Wheeling Jesuit in 2016, he chaired an engineering department just several years old and growing. Even so, it did not make the cut in March as a campus budgetary crisis deepened and a financial exigency was declared. Mr Yahn was laid off.

The beauty of Wheeling Jesuit was not simply that it turned out capable graduates grounded both in liberal arts and Jesuit traditions of service, he said. It was that it did so in a region with a shrinking population and limited college options.

“Engineering students coming out of Carnegie Mellon University probably don’t have Moundsville on their scope,” he said.

Hard choices

Chapel of Mary and Joseph, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, at Wheeling University in Wheeling, WV. (Haldan Kirsch/ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

In states where colleges chase fewer high school graduates, leaders can face a hard choice: Accept a smaller freshman class, and less income, or relax admission standards, and risk that ill-prepared students will drop out.

In Pennsylvania, attention has focused on public campus declines. But Nathan Grawe, a labor economist and expert on demographic trends, warned state legislators in April that private campuses could face greater risk from a birth rate drop tied to the 2008 Great Recession, set to hit campuses in 2026.

Public universities have tax dollars. It’s different for private campuses. “Nobody’s going to bail them out if they get into trouble, and small ones might,” he said.

And Pennsylvania is a college-dense state.

It has 328 colleges and trade schools, from private, for-profit and not-for-profit ones to public schools including the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State and the State System, and branches.

Mr. Grawe says some colleges now emphasize adult and returning students. Some see online programs as an answer.

“It makes your physical location a little less relevant to whether or not you can enroll enough students,” he said.

Since 2009, Dickinson College in Carlisle has built a relationship with five community colleges in Pennsylvania and Maryland to identify, recruit and mentor honors students at those two-year schools. All 44 transfers to date graduated on time from Dickinson or are on pace to do so, with medical school students and a Fulbright scholar among them, said Tara Fischer, a Dickinson dean and the program’s coordinator.

In Ohio, Hiram College redesigned traditional programs, trademarking “The New Liberal Arts.” Donors there funded “Tech and Trek,” an initiative pairing classroom and experiential learning that provides students an iPad Pro and hiking boots.

Pittsburgh campuses, too, are adapting. In March, La Roche College became a university, a move that suggests to prospective students wider undergraduate and graduate offerings.

Years back, Saint Vincent College decided that to survive, it must grow.

It had 1,150 students when Jim Will, a retired steel executive who did the job for no pay, settled into the president’s office in 2000. He sought to build campus “critical mass” with academic and physical improvements and by cutting the freshman dropout rate.

Enrollment now approaches 1,900 at a place where new majors range from cybersecurity to criminology, law and society.

Campus recruiters even talk up teenagers attending Pittsburgh Steelers training camp.

Chatham University, a women’s campus since 1869, went coed in 2014. So have Carlow and Seton Hill universities.

At Chatham, a new men’s hockey team drew eight Canadians and a Swede to campus in 2017. Recruiters say being in a big city helps put the campus on people’s radar, though sports is no magic bullet.

And there’s competition just over state lines.

Ohio schools public and private woo Pennsylvanians with generous scholarships. John Carroll University, another Jesuit campus, touts merit scholarships up to $25,000 a year.

At Wheeling Jesuit, theories abound to explain the school’s predicament, from long-ago managerial decisions to leadership churn: seven interim and permanent presidents in a decade.

“They built buildings I’m not sure were properly budgeted for,” said Jessica Wrobleski, associate theology professor and former chair of the faculty council. She was among those let go and she still believes in the place.

“I’m amazed at the good work being done with students and the amazing things they do. It’s a shame to see that discounted,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Bill Schackner:, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @Bschackner.

Hiram College embraces mindfulness to keep its students rounded

A statue of U.S. President James Garfield, who attended Hiram.

Lauren Rosenblatt

The former home of U.S. President James Garfield, who studied at Hiram and later served as principal when it was known as Western Reserve Eclectic Institute. The building is now used for the humanities center.

HIRAM, Ohio — When students arrive at Hiram College, they are given the promise of a traditional liberal arts education padded with applicable majors and a core curriculum they can use to answer some of today’s biggest questions.

To make that happen, each student is issued an iPad and a pair of hiking boots.

Hiram, a private college with slightly more than 1,000 students located about a hundred miles northwest of Pittsburgh, started the “Tech and Trek” program in 2017 to enhance students’ learning experience while also promoting mindfulness. It’s the school’s way of helping students know when to put the technology down and explore the miles of trails on the rural Ohio campus.

Hiram students Carlee Lisser and Alexis Polcawich tend to ducks at the James H. Barrow Biological Field Station.

The program also puts every student on the same playing field, Hiram leaders and students said, so everyone can make a podcast for a class assignment, learn molecular biology with 3D digital models, and come away with an e-book that acts as a virtual resume.

The Mahan House, where students at Hiram College take biomedical classes.

“The idea is to integrate a lot of input into the educational experience, an orchestration of the traditional and the new,” said board of trustees member William Recker.

“Tech and Trek” is just one of many initiatives Hiram has put in place in recent years so as not to stay “complacent” in an increasingly competitive market for college-age students interested in higher education, and a liberal arts education, said Hiram President Lori Varlotta.

Hiram is in the midst of rolling out the “New Liberal Arts,” an academic redesign that introduced new majors such as sports management, crime, law and justice, marketing and film studies. This fall, students will start on a revamped “core curriculum” in an effort to make their education more practical. As part of the “Tech and Trek” program, the college added more wireless locations so students could easily take learning outside the classroom. In February, it added a podcast studio. This winter, it will complete a redesign of the library.

The podcast studio at Hiram College, which was completed in February.

“Like so many private colleges, enrollment is a challenge, we’re not alone in that,” Ms. Varlotta said. “We’re interested in making sure that we not only have a rhetoric that differentiates us from our counterparts, but that we have concrete examples of how Hiram stands out.”

So far, that plan appears to be working.

In recent years, Hiram has broken fundraising records — first in fiscal year 2016 with $9.3 million in cash gifts and again in 2018 with $9.8 million, according to Jennifer Schuller, vice president for development and alumni relations. In 2019, the school raised nearly $10.3 million.

The school also is trying to increase its endowment from $60 million to $100 million. So far, it has gotten up to $73.4 million. And while enrollment has not significantly increased, it remains stable.

“You build such a strong bond as a student,” alumnus and board of trustees member Randall Dearth said of the reason that so many alumni are inspired to donate. “Hiram was a place where you could be you, no matter what you thought, no matter where you came from. It’s who you are, and what this experience did to you, that helps our giving.”

The Tech and Trek initiative was funded largely by a $2.1 million donation from board of trustees Chairman Dean Scarborough and his wife Janice Bini, but the iPad and hiking boots have added $450 to the student’s required comprehensive fee.

Hiram College

Cost to attend:

Total enrollment: 1,221 (fall 2017)

Endowment: $73.4 million

Founded: 1850

Source: National Center for Education Statistics | Graphic: Ed Yozwick/Post-Gazette

Hiram's nursing program includes simulated patients that can be programmed to have different diseases or ailments.

Like many other private colleges, Hiram offers a discount on the “sticker price” of $35,360. The school also has a four-year tuition guarantee, meaning students pay the same price for tuition all four years of their education.

Hiram long ago discarded the traditional class lecture format, instead relying on discussion-based classes where students can learn from one another. Instead of a traditional 15-week semester, Hiram breaks it into two — 12 weeks of several classes followed by three weeks exclusively focused on one course, allowing for study abroad or research projects.

A classroom in a century home at Hiram College.

Today’s students say Hiram enabled them to take advantage of opportunities they didn’t even know they wanted — from field work and research at the James H. Barrow Biological Field Station to working with faculty on budgets for student activities to clubs that encourage ice skating, rock climbing or playing with Rubik’s cubes.

“I can be involved with everything and I love that. I can do everything, which means I also get to know everybody,” said Erica Lohan, a rising senior majoring in business management and theater.

Walking around Hiram’s campus with century houses serving as dorms or classrooms on every block and a smiling face on every sidewalk, students say they can’t imagine themselves anywhere else.

“When I first came to Hiram, there’s this charm that makes you want to come back,” said Andrew Lang, a communications and business management major entering his junior year. “I just live better here.”

Lauren Rosenblatt:

Thiel College, facing retention issues, looks to athletics to help enrollment

An aerial view of Thiel College on Monday, June 24, 2019 in Greenville. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Emyle Watkins

Susan Traverso, the president at Thiel College, poses for a portrait on campus on Monday, June 24, 2019 in Greenville. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

GREENVILLE, Pa. — Thiel College’s Division III women’s volleyball team will have just two upperclassmen on the court this fall. There were nine freshmen on the 2016 roster, six on the 2017 roster. Becca Dougherty, the sole senior on the team, says that although some of the women left the team, many transferred to other schools.

The volleyball team is not an isolated case of student retention problems. Thiel has struggled with enrollment and retention issues across its campus. But President Susan Traverso and her administration have begun to address it, and have seen some affirming results, with a strategic plan, “Thiel 2021: Student Success.

In 2017, the first year of the plan, Thiel had an overall 55% first-year full-time retention rate, according to government data. Thiel’s overall enrollment has dropped from 1,100 in fall 2013 to 754 last year. Thiel’s plan calls for “bold goals” by 2021: enrollment of 1,100 students, bringing in $15.7 million in net tuition and fees, with a target first-year retention rate of 73%.

“In the next 10, 15 years, no school in Western Pennsylvania is truly going to grow [at the undergraduate level],” Ms. Traverso said. “But, there are going to be some that hold at the undergraduate level and then the good ones, and I think Thiel will be one of them, will diversify and grow.”

Ms. Traverso joined Thiel in 2016, just after the school finished construction of a communications center and spent $30 million on physical improvements. It also added men’s and women’s lacrosse, and men’s volleyball. Thiel just completed its largest-ever fundraising campaign, totaling more than $65 million, that began under her predecessor, Troy D. VanAken.

The admissions building at Thiel College on Monday, June 24, 2019 in Greenville. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Incoming freshman student Bethany Bonnar, of Beaver, Pa. talks to a classmate during a summer orientation session at Thiel College on Monday, June 24, 2019 in Greenville. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Much of the college’s plan follows these same concepts: fundraising, construction and focus on athletics. However, new efforts are focused on the region, diversifying programs and building confidence in Thiel’s small-college identity.

Thiel officials are especially interested in investing in athletics to boost enrollment. At another Division III school, Adrian College in Adrian, Mich., strengthening varsity athletics led to a 200% increase in applicants in the next year, according to The Blade, of Toledo, Ohio. Jeffrey R. Docking, president of Adrian, co-wrote a book on how Adrian’s athletics-focused strategic plan doubled enrollment and tuition revenue in six years.

Thiel decided to follow this strategy. Now, coaches have skin in the game as their success is now partially graded by how well they recruit players who will stay at the college.

In June 2017, women’s volleyball got a new head coach, Tyler North. Ms. Traverso says Mr. North’s recruits have since outpaced “college retention rate by double digits.” Thiel also hired a new head football coach, Mike Winslow, in December. According to Ms. Traverso, Mr. Winslow’s first recruiting class came with improved GPA and SAT scores, and with 90% of students coming from Thiel’s new target area.

In the past two years, Thiel has taken a recruiting focus of 200 to 300 miles surrounding the college, meaning that most students come from a few hours away.

Incoming freshman students walk on campus during an orientation at Thiel College on Monday, June 24, 2019 in Greenville. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Madison Hawthorne, a commuting education major, will be coming to Thiel with about a dozen Greenville High School graduates in the fall. Her scholarships brought her tuition down to $3,000, compared with the $32,116 sticker price for a commuter student. Thiel currently offers more than 40 scholarships for students coming from high schools in Pennsylvania and Ohio, including the Baughman Scholarship for students of high schools closest to Thiel.

“Most people don’t stay in town, but more Greenville students are now coming to Thiel,” Ms. Hawthorne said, who lives a mile from Thiel. “It’s a great opportunity.”

Thiel College

Cost to attend:

Total enrollment: 766 (fall 2017)

Endowment: $74.8 million

Founded: 1866

Source: National Center for Education Statistics | Graphic: Ed Yozwick/Post-Gazette

Beyond focusing more admissions resources on the region, the college has developed five new undergraduate majors, including an Environmental Safety Management major, meant to serve growing demand in Western Pennsylvania’s gas and oil industry. As an effort to diversify, Thiel is planning to offer graduate programs and is seeking accreditation in speech pathology for 2020.

Students use a computer lab on campus during an orientation at Thiel College on Monday, June 24, 2019 in Greenville. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Incoming freshman student Kevin Campos, of Rockingham, NC, talks to an advisor during an orientation at Thiel College on Monday, June 24, 2019 in Greenville. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Thiel has affiliated with Sharon Regional Medical Center for pre-professional training, as well as service of its on-campus clinic and programs in its wellness center. It will serve Thiel and the Greenville area.

Ms. Traverso takes pride in Thiel’s being a “small, highly personal place,” where she knows the names of many of the students who walk to class on the sidewalks that curve through buildings and trees on the open campus. She describes Thiel as an “engine for upward mobility” for its’ 43% first-generation student body. This identity, of a small, socio-economically diverse private liberal arts college, is something Ms. Traverso sees as instrumental in the future.

“Let’s do what we can do, really well,” Ms. Traverso said. “And let’s not make decisions predicated on some false sense of growth. Let’s be very careful. This is the size we can be, both by demand in this region, and by our own facility, and let’s leverage our facilities in other ways.”

Emyle Watkins:

La Roche University says small size creates strong bonds

An aerial view of La Roche University on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 in McCandless. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Andrea Klick

The Kerr Fitness and Sports Center at La Roche University on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 in McCandless. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Julia Felton says she felt comfortable when she toured the campus of La Roche University during a visit when she was a junior at Canon-McMillan High School.

Ms. Felton, now a rising junior who is majoring in professional writing and journalism, was impressed that she was able to meet the head of La Roche’s English department as a prospective student.

In her classes, which have ranged from about eight to 20 people, she has formed relationships with many of her professors who have helped her find internships and take on leadership roles at the 1,400-student campus, including becoming editor-in-chief of the campus paper her sophomore year. The English department head, Janine Bayer, became her academic adviser and took her on as an intern while she did research on sabbatical.

“It’s just so personal,” she said. “You get to know everyone there, students and professors.”

Like a majority of La Roche students, Ms. Felton, of Cecil, grew up within a 50-mile radius of the McCandless campus. But Chip Weisgerber, vice president for enrollment management, also sends admission counselors to college fairs in Ohio, New York, West Virginia and Maryland to encourage more students from those areas to apply and enroll.

He said La Roche has seen consistent enrollment from incoming freshmen, but the school recognizes the shrinking number of college-age students and high school graduates who are interested in pursuing a four-year degree.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have sleepless nights [thinking] about enrollment, but if you continue to be who you are and don’t try to please everyone … I think you can weather these kinds of storms,” said Sister Candace Introcaso, the president of the Catholic university.

The Kerr Fitness and Sports Center at La Roche University on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 in McCandless. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

In the past few years, the university has adjusted its admissions rate — for the 2013-14 school year it had a 56% freshman admissions rate, which jumped to 93% the next year, according to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Mr. Weisgerber said that as long as students meet La Roche’s admissions standards — which he says means having at least a 2.0 high school GPA and a 790 SAT score — they are guaranteed admission.

“We don’t look at students and say, ‘Oh, we want to get 10 of this type of student and 20 of this type of student, and we need a certain percentage of this type of student,’” he said. “La Roche’s philosophy [is] if you meet our requirements and you want to take advantage of the opportunity to get an education here, we want to provide that for you.”

Still, he said, incoming freshmen have had higher average standardized test scores and GPAs in the past few years.

La Roche University

Cost to attend:

Total enrollment: 1,535 (fall 2017)

Endowment: $5.9 million

Founded: 1963

Source: National Center for Education Statistics | Graphic: Ed Yozwick/Post-Gazette

Sister Introcaso believes the university allows students to form personal bonds with faculty and staff while also interacting with students from around the world. Its location, a 15-minute drive to Downtown Pittsburgh, offers students more opportunities for internships and jobs, compared to other small schools that are situated in rural areas, she said.

An aerial view of La Roche University on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 in McCandless. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

Mr. Weisgerber said the school also is unique because it attracts students from places such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, partly because the Sisters of Divine Providence, who founded La Roche, have ministries there. Ms. Introcaso considers “global citizenship” a hallmark of La Roche’s mission and believes having a diverse student body contributes to students’ understanding of the world.

The school announced an official name change in March from La Roche College to La Roche University that will help attract a larger international student body, Ms. Introcaso said.

The Cantellops Dining Hall in the Zappala College Center at La Roche University on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 in McCandless. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

“[The word] ‘college’ often doesn’t translate in other countries because high schools are often called colleges, so [the] name change will help us recruit more international students and gain respect” around the world, she said.

And while other schools have moved to cut certain programs and majors to save money, La Roche continues to value both its professional programs and liberal arts background, history and political science department Chairman Joshua Forrest said.

The school is working on a $7 million renovation of its science center, building two new nursing facilities, and upgrading its athletic fields to add men’s and women’s lacrosse as NCAA Division III sports. La Roche also will be bringing in five recruits for a new varsity women’s bowling team this fall.

“I think small colleges have to be aggressive in order to be relevant, and I think they have to carve out a niche,” Mr. Forrest said. “La Roche does an unusually good job of providing a diverse array of programs.”

Andrea Klick: or on Twitter: @Andrea_Klick

Muskingum relies on market research to remain relevant

The gym at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio, is named for astronaut and former U.S. Sen. John Glenn, a Muskingum alum. Picture made on Monday, July 8, 2019. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Serena Cho

NEW CONCORD, Ohio — Starting this fall, about 20 Muskingum University students will play video games while wearing jerseys that bear the school’s name as members of its new eSports team.

Like members of the school’s football, basketball and volleyball teams, the e-athletes will practice every day, analyze video of their previous performances, and battle against other schools, said Quinn O’Bryan, Muskingum’s eSports coach.

Five incoming freshmen were recruited for the team this year, Mr. O’Bryan said, and he hopes to eventually draw high school students from across the country.

Susan Schneider Hasseler, president of Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio, on Monday, July 8, 2019. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

The decision to create an eSports team came from yearslong discussions about ways to recruit out-of-state students, said university President Susan Hasseler.

Steve Brockelbank, athletic director of Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio, on Monday, July 8, 2019. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Currently, sports recruitment is the biggest pipeline bringing students to Muskingum, according to athletic director Steve Brockelbank. He said 55% of Muskingum applicants express interest in playing a varsity sport, and 40% of the student body is on a varsity roster.

As decreasing enrollment and rising tuition continue to pose threats to small liberal arts colleges, administrators are developing tactics to help them compete for students. Muskingum has an undergraduate enrollment of 1,500 and an average freshman retention rate of 77%.

Ms. Hasseler says Muskingum is adjusting to the fast-shifting landscape of higher education, which is much more complex than in the 1940s, when the school’s most famous alumnus, former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn, Class of 1943, attended.

Muskingum University “was the home I’d been looking for,” says Kayla Wilkerson, a recent graduate of the school in New Concord, Ohio, on Monday, July 8, 2019. She grew up in Houston but likes the rural feel of Muskingum. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Situated between Pittsburgh and Columbus, a short drive off Interstate 70, Muskingum primarily serves students from the immediate area, with 88% of its enrollment hailing from Ohio. Seeing dozens of familiar faces every day makes you feel like you belong to a family, not a school, said Kayla Wilkerson, who graduated from Muskingum in May.

Steve Soba, head of enrollment and marketing at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio, on Monday, July 8, 2019. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

But university officials are trying to recruit a more geographically diverse student body, said Steve Soba, Muskingum’s vice president for enrollment and marketing. Admissions representatives now travel to southern Michigan, Central Pennsylvania, western Virginia and Kentucky to meet with high school students.

Mr. Soba also said Muskingum administrators have “a very well-written business plan” to attract students. Whether a program will bring more students and revenue is the school’s “primary consideration … and a top priority” when designing curriculum, he said.

In particular, administrators analyze regional and national data to identify growing industries to determine how Muskingum can teach students the skills needed in those fields, Ms. Hasseler said.

For example, Muskingum started offering classes for adults in the 1990s to serve the growing demand for lifelong education. It costs the school less to educate adults, who typically commute to classes and don’t need room and board and other things full-time students require.

Ms. Hasseler added that Muskingum invested in health sciences programs in the early 2000s, because health care was the fastest-growing profession in southeast Ohio. Although traditionally a liberal arts college, Muskingum now teaches its students practical skills that will help them “turn broad-based theory into their next profession,” Ms. Hasseler said.

“I pay very close attention to what’s happening nationally,” she added. “We do a lot of data analysis at Muskingum, and we try to develop a very strong business model and figure out how to invest in our students.

“If you are going to remain viable, you have to constantly try to predict what students need to learn and prepare for the present and the future. Muskingum has been working hard to remain relevant. I wouldn’t say I’m not too worried because then I wouldn’t be the president.”

Serena Cho:

Muskingum University

Cost to attend:


Total enrollment: 2,369 Endowment: $70 million Founded: 1837

Source: National Center for Education Statistics | Graphic: Ed Yozwick/Post-Gazette

Bethany College ups admission standards to address retention issues

The interior of Commencement Hall at Bethany College, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Bethany, WV. (Haldan Kirsch/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Emyle Watkins

A statue of the Bethany College bison mascot outside the Thomas Phillips Johnson Health and Recreation Center at Bethany College, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Bethany, WV. (Haldan Kirsch/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

BETHANY, W.Va. — Bethany College, a 179-year-old private liberal arts school, has always been small; enrollment has rarely exceeded 900 students in recent history. However, as of late, enrollment and retention issues have left it with significant financial concerns.

Bethany suffered its first-ever deficit, roughly $2.7 million, at the end of the 2016-2017 fiscal year. The deficit was expected, following years of operational losses, and the declining enrollment, according to a 2017 audit. Yearly audits are conducted and made public in compliance with federal regulations on non-profits. Enrollment had declined to 540 students from 913 in 2010, which was its highest enrollment in the last 15 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

When the Rev. Tamara Nichols Rodenberg was named Bethany’s president in 2016, she was tasked with repairing its finances. When she arrived, Rev. Rodenberg created a five-year strategic plan to financially and organizationally restructure the college. According to college officials, they are “well on our way to realizing much of the original objectives.”

College officials also stated that the “next generation” of 2017 strategic plan is “Bethany Connect,” a plan that several marketing videos reference to, and will be released in detail to the public mid-fall. So far, only the framework of the plan is discussed in the videos.

Bethany College

Cost to attend:

Total enrollment: 628 (fall 2017) Endowment: $46.7 million (2015) Founded: 1840

Source: National Center for Education Statistics | Graphic: Ed Yozwick/Post-Gazette

Bethany College officials declined a request for an interview, but Rev. Rodenberg, agreed to provide emailed responses to questions from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“We are committed to a return to setting stronger admission and scholarship award criteria,” Rev. Rodenberg said in an email. “Our strategic goal is to return to recruiting the student that will thrive in our particular college setting and who will persist to graduation.”

Colleges typically give back a growing share of tuition and fees as financial aid, commonly called the “tuition discount” rate. One core component of the college’s strategy is to be more selective in its admissions and scholarship standards while decreasing its average financial aid discount rate, according to the audit.

From 2015-2016 to 2016-2017, the last years available from NCES, Bethany decreased the percentage of full-time, first-time students receiving aid by 13%, from 100% to 87%, but increased the average institutional aid award by about 24%, according to NCES. Bethany overall decreased grants paid out by $1.1 million, according to the 2016-2017 fiscal year tax Form 990.

The view of Old Main at Bethany College, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Bethany, WV. (Haldan Kirsch/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

An outdoor classroom at Bethany College, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Bethany, WV. (Haldan Kirsch/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Bethany inspires to get better-prepared students through increased academic admissions standards. Rev. Rodenberg stated in her email that students are expected to spend their college career focused on completing the rigorous comprehensive exam. The exam, typically taken at the end of senior year, can ask questions from any part of the student’s major over the past four years.

“Many of our students have commented that after passing [comprehensives] at Bethany, graduate school or an initial job was not as difficult as they expected,” Rev. Rodenberg stated.

“When you [take the comprehensive exams], you really do feel, like ‘I did that’, no one can stop me,” said Darren Johnson, a 2019 graduate. “No could tell me that I’m not on top of the world.”

Mr. Johnson, who passed his comprehensives with distinction in his junior year, said he wanted to go to a small liberal arts college, like Bethany, to be a “big fish in the small pond.” While he admits it was hard to adjust to living in a rural community, it also gave him his first experiences camping and whitewater rafting.

Housing for Greek Life at Bethany College, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Bethany, WV. (Haldan Kirsch/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

The view of Old Main at Bethany College, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Bethany, WV. (Haldan Kirsch/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

As part of the 2017 plan, the college also will receive $39.6 million in loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program, which provides loans to create economic opportunities in rural areas. The loans will reduce costs associated with current debt and allow for physical and program improvements at Bethany.

Some of the new plans described in the marketing videos include doubling study abroad programs, expanding team sports and increasing programs in the visual and performing arts. The college also recently added two new majors, Cyber Security and Cyber Assurance.

Bethany covered the $2.7 million deficit six months after the close of the 2017 fiscal year, with the help of an “unprecedented” level of donations. In a fall 2018 video, Rev. Rodenberg stated that over the past year, Bethany cut $1.4 million in operating costs, and received more than $10 million in donations. She added that the fall 2018 class saw increased enrollment and better academic standing. Rev. Rodenberg added in her email that they are on track for 200 to 225 incoming freshman in the fall of 2019.

In the rest of the fall 2018 video, Rev. Rodenberg states that “reversing the trends that brought us to this point will take time and the next couple years are going to be critical.” Joined by Greg Jordan, chairman of the Board of Trustees, Rev. Rodenberg and Mr. Jordan make an appeal to alumni, that as they try to reverse these enrollment and retention trends, alumni should do their part and continue to donate.

Emyle Watkins:, 412-263-1130, or on Twitter @EmyleWatkins.