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How a student-centered and values-driven college thrives during times of adversity

This blog summarizes the key takeaways from our fiscal resiliency podcast, episode 15.

Perhaps at no point in modern history have colleges and universities’ fiscal resiliency been put to the test more than in the last 2 ½ years. At many institutions, COVID-19 strained budgets, sliced enrollment numbers and exacerbated a variety of academic and non-academic issues that impacted students, staff members and the campuses themselves at almost every level. On the other hand, for some institutions, the pandemic served as a catalyst for change and enabled them to be successful despite its many disruptions.

Dave Capitano, Higher Education Practice Leader, explored the layers of this topic in our latest Higher Ed Advisor fiscal resiliency podcast with Dennis Wilke, the president of Rosedale Technical College (Rosedale Tech), an institution that prepares and equips its students for careers in high-demand fields through academic programs, hands-on training and skill development. Wilke joined us to share how Rosedale Tech’s unique value proposition, commitment to being student centered and deep alignment with their institutional mission and values helped them achieve fiscal resiliency and student success during the peak of and post-COVID-19.

Transforming institutional strategy

Wilke described Rosedale Tech as “kind of a unicorn.” By this, he meant that there are only a couple hundred private, not-for-profit, two-year degree institutions in the U.S. And few, if any, have enjoyed the type of success that Rosedale Tech has in recent years.

Capitano also emphasized the institution’s ability to maneuver and thrive through the COVID-19 years while other colleges and universities were treading water and closing their doors. Rosedale Tech reimagined its strategy and innovated how to continue to meet the needs of its changing diverse student population and achieve growth during an unprecedented event. “It was a transformational time,” Wilke said, adding that the Pittsburgh-based college actually experienced a record year of enrollment from July 1, 2020 until June 30, 2021. “It was phenomenal, and I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

Paving a path to success through a values-based approach

Rosedale Tech’s emphasis on being a values-driven organization is one of the key elements that has contributed to their recent success. With being student-centered as their number one value, “Every decision that we make is predicated by the question, ‘what's best for the students?’” Wilke said. He added that doing what’s best for students “doesn't mean always doing what the student asks for. It means doing what's best for them and in their best interest and helping them to understand why it's in their best interest.”

In addition to institutional values, maintaining proactive communication with the community’s key decision-makers, including state and local officials, also helped formulate Rosedale Tech’s COVID-19 strategy towards reopening their campus for in-person training and learning as quickly as possible. After the U.S. effectively shut down in March 2020 due to the pandemic, Rosedale Tech reopened for live training three months later, and then by the end of September, 100% of their students were back in-person full-time. This was particularly important for the College, as many of its students are training to become essential workers.

The ripple effect of being student-centered and ready began reaching students attending other institutions. Here, Wilke pinpointed three of the many factors that contributed to Rosedale Tech’s fiscal resiliency and enrollment boon during the pandemic:

  1. An expeditious return to in-person learning and training the early success of the institution’s ability to return live and face-to-face demonstrated its commitment to students, staff and administration as well as the community.
  2. A pathway and new home for career switchers – there were numerous workers looking to switch careers at that time and found a new home for their studies and career goals at Rosedale Tech.
  3. Rosedale Tech’s unique value proposition across higher education – there is a high percentage of students who specifically target the campus for their education, and because of its unique value proposition compared to other institutions, students were less likely to look elsewhere.

Connecting with a diverse student body

Rosedale Tech’s ability to build relationships with students as part of its commitment to being student-centered also served as one of the drivers of its success throughout the challenges across the industry. The institution puts an emphasis on student relationships from day one, says Wilke. Admissions leaders meet and discuss with prospective students about why they chose and are at Rosedale Tech, what they are interested in and what drives them to succeed. This allows school leaders and administration to truly understand the students’ needs and goals and, just as importantly, motivations.

Wilke noted that the organization follows an inverted organizational chart, where the students are on top and Wilke, the school president, is on the bottom, which aligns with the institution’s student-centric culture. To take it a step further, every Rosedale Tech student receives Wilke’s personal cell phone number “to reach out to me at any time,” he said. Additionally, institutional leaders and team members listen to student feedback and engage with students to help the college improve and have fun in doing so. (Listen to the podcast for how Wilke challenges students!)

Another aspect of its student-focused culture is Rosedale Tech’s intentional efforts to hold itself and students accountable. Wilke mentioned his institution’s rigorous admissions procedure is unlike most technical trade institutions and examined how this specific selection process has positively influenced the growth and diversity of their campus’ demographics.

In terms of demographics, Wilke and his team are proud of the healthy, robust and diverse student population at Rosedale Tech. Specifically, the college has a 10% female participation, a growing Central Asian and African American population and these numbers continue to evolve in a positive direction. Additionally, the income base, Wilke pointed out, has been increasing and contrasts the traditional expectations of a trade school’s student body. “The background of our students is becoming more a background that would traditionally have led them to a four-year institution, meaning they've got parental support, financial support,” Wilke detailed. “We are down from 10 years ago; 80% of our students were eligible for Pell Grants. Now, it's about 60% or less.”

Preparing students for the workforce and the future

The relationships that Rosedale Tech’s leaders have built extend far beyond the students. The college places a similar individualized, one-on-one priority on its connections and partnerships with employers. Wilke explains their strategy of deeply learning the culture of the employers that hire their students, what the companies value and what kinds of individuals are successful in that organization help them guide and find the best fit for both their students and the company.

Rosedale Tech’s workforce development partnerships with companies continue to grow as employers recognize their need to do more to attract a student base like that of Rosedale Tech. This is where many employers have benefited from being actively engaged and present on the campus. Wilke described that companies assist in classrooms, present guest lectures on trending and student-interest topics, as well as sponsor events, host lunch and learns and conduct onsite field trips. Through such efforts, the institution and its connected employers give and receive transparent feedback “so that they understand where we're coming from and where our students are coming from.”

In addition to relationships with companies for workforce development, Rosedale Tech offers various pathways and resources to meet student needs and improve student outcome. Articulation agreements with various four-year institutions provide pathways for students to gain further education; the college’s partnership with agencies to offer students different perspectives and resources; and student-run clubs and organizations offer other services and unique experiences. These efforts go beyond conventional wisdom to prepare both the student and Rosedale Tech for success.

It’s all part of the Rosedale Tech mindset that Wilke summarized as “connections at a detailed, personal level.”

Baker Tilly has a tremendous demonstration of support for the (higher education) industry through giving, numerous introductions, seminars and conversations we have had about what's going on at our school and at other schools. One of the things I love to do is visit other schools, and Baker Tilly helped make that happen. I'm happy to have moved over to Baker Tilly now for a couple years and am looking forward to a long engagement.
Dennis Wilke, President, Rosedale Technical College

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