Roberts Wesleyan College president John Martin knows things have to change.
A rapidly changing college marketplace and a demographic shift have caused the college to go outside its normal recruitment zone to find students, he said. But to do that, the college needs to transform itself and the way it offers its curriculum. For an institution with a small endowment and heavily reliant on enrollment for revenue, this shift is pivotal in reaching new students, Martin said.
The college has undergone a major structural change in the past year, dividing the campus into two schools-one of liberal arts and sciences, a second of professional studies. At the same time, it has made a jump from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, commonly known as NAIA, to NCAA Division II athletics, which officials believe will stretch the college's recruitment area.
The moves are meant to counteract a decline in the number of high school graduates in Western New York and throughout the college's normal recruitment area, Martin said.
"Our vision is to continue to expand our reach into other areas of New York State and beyond," he said.
Some 40 percent of Roberts Wesleyan's roughly 1,800 students come from Rochester and an additional 40 percent to 45 percent from the rest of the state.
"We've not really done a great job of cracking the New York City market, and with half the population in the state there, we could really make some gains," Martin said.
The changes all take place during what is to be the largest fundraising initiative in the college's history. The campaign, which is still in its quiet phase and does not yet have a specific goal, has three emphases: improve education in science, technology, engineering and math fields; boost the college's scholarship program; and build its endowment.
"The nature of this campaign is intense," said Jack Connell, executive vice president at Roberts Wesleyan. "It's an all-hands-on-deck effort to reach out and build new relationships as well as reaching those who have given in the past."
Moving to Division II
If Roberts Wesleyan wants to reach into the New York City area, sports is one way to do it, Martin said. The shift to NCAA Division II is expected to raise the profile of the college and take it to new regions.
"We've been in NAIA for many, many years, and that has been good for the college," Martin said. "There are about 320 schools in NAIA, but not as many in the Northeast as there used to be, so we formed a task force and looked into what direction to go."
College officials decided a change to NCAA Division II, which would allow it to give moderate scholarships to student-athletes, was best. Instead of competing against teams from Ohio or western Pennsylvania, Roberts Wesleyan is now in the East Coast Conference with teams from New York City and Long Island.
"We feel this will give us exposure in the New York City area and attract not just athletes but other students who will now know about us," Martin said.
The move is not without its cost for Roberts Wesleyan. To make the transition, the college hired an additional staff member to handle compliance and a senior female administrator as well as a full-time sports information director. College officials said the move to Division II will cost $100,000 to $200,000 more annually.
Now in the second year of candidacy for NCAA Division II, Roberts Wesleyan's teams have competed well, Martin said. The school placed second in volleyball and in the middle of the pack in men's and women's soccer.
This academic year is the first in which Roberts Wesleyan is operating as two schools, pulling 11 divisions into the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the School of Professional Studies.
The move will give the college a structure closer to that of a university, Martin said. It also emphasizes the strengths of the college and helps it keep up with the changing needs of the region.
"We've been strong in the services kinds of programs, like social work, teacher education, nursing and so forth," Martin said. "We are also going to be able to put more emphasis on sciences, so the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences will get renewed investment and attention."
Those investments include the complete campus renovation that has taken place over the last 16 years, Martin said. In that time, every academic space has been remodeled or completely rebuilt.
Much of this growth is due to good long-term planning on the part of the college, Martin said.
"We've been on a really good run over the last decade and a half," Martin said. "My predecessor did a good job, and we've been able to do all the building and renovating debt-free by being frugal and thanks to our generous donors, which is an amazing thing."
The science and nursing building is next on the schedule for updates, he said.
"There's going to be a renewed emphasis on the programs that support nursing, the things that Western New York needs as it transforms from a manufacturing-based to a knowledge-based economy," Martin said.
In an academic world where change often creeps at a glacial pace, Roberts Wesleyan was determined to roll out its changes in a careful but speedy way, Connell said.
"This administrative change comes at a time when things are shifting rapidly," he said. "This shows that Roberts Wesleyan College is fueled by innovation and responsive to needs in a rapidly changing environment."
The college also is starting a new marketing campaign to get the word out about its emphasis on education, Connell said.
"As a private school, it's difficult for us to win students over on price, so we have to win them over on quality," he said.
Though Roberts Wesleyan College will continue to explore new master's degree and undergraduate programs, Martin said it is not looking into adding the doctoral programs that would make it a true university. That could be a conversation at the college, but it would be "way down the line," he said.
In the nearer future, the college will turn its attention to offering more online courses, reaching the growing demographic of students who want to take courses but whose time constraints may keep them from coming to campus.
"As we move into online delivery systems, it's not like the residential model of the college will go away," Connell said. "But we will start to see more online and hybrid course options."
Whatever challenges come, Martin said, Roberts Wesleyan will change to meet them and remain part of the region's strong higher education sector.
"I'm bullish on the future of Roberts Wesleyan College," Martin said. "Higher education has such a big impact here locally, especially over the last 20 years. I think it's been higher education that's kept the region from really reaching the doldrums as other industries declined, and we plan to continue to be a strong part of that."
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