Concert Hall Tower at the West Chester University of Pennsylvania

Connecting institution readiness with student success to enhance fiscal resiliency and retention

Intentionality is key to West Chester University’s efforts to optimize academic program array and student support resources.

This blog summarizes the key takeaways from our fiscal resiliency podcast, episode 12.

West Chester University of Pennsylvania (WCU), like many colleges and universities across the country, was struggling with enrollment decline and the related decrease in average class sizes and downward trend in student to faculty ratios. In Baker Tilly’s recent Higher Ed Advisor fiscal resiliency podcast, WCU President, Christopher Fiorentino, and Executive Vice President and Provost, Dr. Laurie Bernotsky, highlighted how “intentionality” in academic program design and the support services the university offers students contributes to both enrollment management and student success.

Streamlining undergraduate programs

While many universities – including WCU – offer majors that attract students because the programs are nationally and internationally renowned, Bernotsky noted that most students matriculate as undeclared. Even if they declare a major as a first-year student, students often change majors. In many cases, this can add to the length of time to graduation, which in turn impacts cost of attendance for a student. She added that when undergraduates are looking at colleges, the concept of “major” loyalty doesn't matter as much as “brand” loyalty to the institution.

Universities need an array of majors that is reasonable and related to the size of the institution. Fiorentino noted that for some schools in the Pennsylvania system, 75% of declared majors are within 15 to 20 programs. If an institution offers 55 programs, then 25% of students are thinly spread through 35 to 40 programs. The trick becomes making sure that a university does not have too many small programs that are supported by larger programs, he advised. 

Fiorentino pointed out that universities receive their revenue at the beginning of the academic year when students pay tuition. If a student signs up for a class, then drops it and switches to another class, the money does not follow the student. The more programs a college or university offers, the more likely it must manage the cost of majors covered by a small number of students.

At the same time, university leaders realize that because of the rapid pace of change in society, higher education institutions are preparing students for careers that do not yet exist, according to Bernotsky. Gone are the days where schools could just add majors to attract students in new disciplines, she added. Taking a fixed population of students and spreading it thinly among more programs will drive down class size, “which means on average you are paying more for instruction because you've added new faculty and staff, but not enough students to make up for the added costs.”

The key for institutions is to be nimble with streamlined undergraduate core disciplines upon which the institution can add certificate programs as needed. Adding certificate programs is also a way to attract individuals in the workforce who need upscaling or re-skilling for their careers.

Bernotsky shared that WCU is using what it calls a “meta-discipline” approach to help undecided first-year students choose and stay with a major. To support this approach, the university taps into its best and brightest faculty across disciplines to team-teach courses. For example, first semester students could take a class taught by both marketing and management professors or professors across a range of social sciences. The program is in its fourth year, and this year WCU will have the complement of data required assess if it has helped first-year students pick meta-disciplines that allow them to change specific majors without impacting time to graduation.

Supporting student success

Podcast host and Baker Tilly Managing Director, Christine Smith, observed that the focus at WCU has shifted from a student being “institution ready” to the institution being “student ready”. Bernotsky agreed, noting that the “meta-discipline’ and other approaches are not only about choosing which programs WCU offers but making sure the university supports the student from matriculation to graduation holistically. This includes providing wraparound services to address student need gaps on an ongoing basis.

In Baker Tilly’s experience assessing gaps in student services requires a cross department/cross functional approach, which many institutions struggle to navigate. This assessment includes and goes beyond review of institutional policies and procedure gaps that hinder student success to more proactive and innovative discussions about how the institution comprehensively should change approaches to prioritize student supports in a way that offer proactive and seamless services at the appropriate time to have major student success impact. 

Bernotsky also described WCU’s “Moon Shot for Equity” program, the institution’s 10-year commitment to erase achievement gaps between all groups of students. Further, she said it can be a challenge to shift perceptions of university leaders to help them understand the importance of investing in student readiness programs, like student success coaches, because students need more support than just traditional faculty advisors. Student success coaches help students navigate non-academic issues that might hinder their success – everything from helping with financial aid to roommate issues. It is this comprehensive, cross functional approach to student support service design and delivery that can make all the difference. 

Fiorentino also highlighted WCU’s “Fund to Finish” program, which supports undergraduates who are close to finishing the degree but have exhausted the usual financial aid options and may owe relatively small amounts that could keep them from graduating. “We know that completing that degree is going to put them on an entirely different life trajectory,” he said. “And we don't want them stopping within sight of the finish line because most of the time, they don't come back, they move on with their lives.” The Fund to Finish program is funded entirely by WCU alumni to cover these amounts and can be accessed at the discretion of a variety of campus function and process owners. 

In summary, the concepts of being “student ready” and considering adoption of meta-majors or meta-disciplines is growing in prevalence as institutions strive to give students the time and support, they need to determine their passions and area of career interest without delaying their graduation date. WCU’s intentionality in academic array and major/program design has helped the institution decide how to streamline the programs it offers its students, which also supports institutional success. Both the student and the institution benefit from aligned programs and student supports that promote student success all the way to graduation.

For more information about readying your institution to enhance student success and fiscal resiliency, or to learn how Baker Tilly higher education specialists can help, contact our team.

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Fiscal resiliency resources for higher education

Strategic insights for colleges, universities, research institutions and academic medical centers to enhance student success and institutional sustainability.

Christine M. Smith
Managing Director

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