Decision Points: Looking Forward to 2015-16
September 3, 2015
I am anticipating this academic year at Drexel University with extraordinary excitement.
Last year, we made a number of important decisions as a University. Many were challenging, a few were difficult — all were necessary to improve our competitive position going forward. The result is that Drexel enters 2015–16 a stronger, more resilient university than it was a year ago.
Although students won’t begin classes for a few more weeks, I know that you’re already shifting into high gear. I want to welcome you back from a well-deserved summer vacation, and also welcome new colleagues who are joining us at Drexel. As we prepare for this year and beyond, let me take this opportunity to discuss how some of our decisions have positioned Drexel for success.
Decision Point: Recruit and Retain Right-Fit Students
In 2015, we completely overhauled Drexel’s undergraduate enrollment strategy. We focused on reaching students for whom our University is the right choice, rather than just one choice out of many. The signal that we needed to do this was our unsustainably low retention and graduation rates, which threatened the remarkable momentum you’ve worked so hard to establish. We were generating large numbers of applicants, but a shrinking proportion — just 8 percent last year — of admitted students were enrolling.
As a result of pursuing fewer applications while increasing our standards, we expected (and budgeted for) a reduced number of new undergraduates — 2,600 freshmen and 850 transfer students. I am pleased to report that we are well ahead of those expectations: as of today, we had deposits from 2,827 freshmen and 907 transfers. And we have significantly improved our yield rate, from 8 percent to over 13 percent for this freshman class.
Affordability is a critically important factor in attracting and retaining students, and we took further steps to control the cost of a Drexel education. For the second straight year, we set the overall increase in our tuition, room, board and fees well below most of our peers; this year was 2.84 percent. As a result, we went from third-most expensive on our list of 20 peer universities to sixth, and I expect we’ll settle in the middle of the list in the next few years, as we continue to hold total changes below 3 percent.
We did all of this in the midst of a yearlong effort to place admissions, financial aid, academic advising and co-op on a single continuum that supports students from their college search through to graduation. The result was the creation of the Division of Enrollment Management and Student Success under Senior Vice President Randy Deike.
In the coming year, we can expect to see real impact on the student experience coming from our comprehensive approach to student lifecycle management. One example is happening this month, when the revamped Welcome Week connects new and returning students alike to everything Drexel has to offer.
Decision Point: Focus Investment on Our Core Mission
Our decision to proactively implement recruitment and affordability strategies to ensure our long-term competitiveness had an unavoidable consequence: a slowdown in growth in operating revenue for the next several years. In response, we took measures to enhance other sources of revenue, such as fundraising, while at the same time reducing administrative costs and improving the efficiency of our operations.
Our strong financial performance in 2014–15 was due in part to stellar fundraising, leveraging the confidence that foundations and corporations have in Drexel as well as the pride of alumni, parents and friends. We broke records once again in fiscal year 2015, raising the largest amount of funds in a single year ever for Drexel at $115 million.
On the expense side, we reduced central administrative expenses by over $18 million. The elimination of a number of administrative positions was painful but necessary to further secure our financial position. As a result, our net revenue was strongly positive, and this year we are planning investments to strengthen our academic core, including student scholarships and financial aid, and support for faculty recruitment and retention.
Decision Point: Support a Culture of Academic Engagement and Discovery
This year we will continue to implement Drexel’s new budget process, giving deans and faculty greater control over how the revenue generated by their schools and colleges is invested — because no one is in a better position to decide how to achieve our academic goals.
We have also launched a new Graduate College under the leadership of Dean James Herbert to better serve our graduate students and foster the kind of interdisciplinary research that is key to our mission. By the end of fall, the Graduate College will have newly renovated space on the third floor of the Main Building.
Scholarship and research continue to flourish, with 97 new awards granted to Drexel faculty and students in the fourth quarter of 2014–15 alone. To congratulate just a few faculty members: Dr. Jeffery Jacobson’s research on AIDS and HIV in the College of Medicine continues to attract grants — most recently a pair of grants from the National Institutes of Health and from the City of Philadelphia’s AIDS Activities Coordinating Center, totaling $1.4 million. Roland Wall of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University has the full confidence of the William Penn Foundation, which has provided $6 million recently to the Academy to support initiatives related to an important Academy-led conservation program that will become a national model for watershed protection. And a nutritional outreach project for Philadelphia public schools designed by Dr. Stella Volpe of the College of Nursing and Health Professions has been backed by a grant of $1.8 million. Many other exciting faculty projects won support this year in every college and school, reflecting Drexel’s excellence in connecting research with practical outcomes.
Finally, this summer, Drexel faculty members were all over the world representing the University as speakers, visiting scholars and authors. Our faculty are helping to spread the Drexel name and reputation, and I’m so proud of their achievements.
Decision Point: Move Forward with Campus and Neighborhood Transformation
One reason we are able to make academic investment our top priority is the fact that Drexel has become a leader in market-driven, third-party–funded infrastructure development. Our goal is to use our tuition and fundraising revenue to fund projects that help advance teaching, research and student success. For necessary amenities outside the academic core, such as housing, childcare and retail, the University has been able to attract outside investors and developers through creative partnerships.
This fall, we will open The Summit at University City, our third major project with American Campus Communities, and a breathtaking achievement. The 550,000-square-foot tower includes 1,316 student beds and 11 new retail locations, plus an exciting addition to student life: a much-needed, state-of-the-art dining facility.
In May, Drexel and Hospitality 3 broke ground on a 212-room hotel at 33rd and Chestnut streets named The Study at University City. This year will see the bulk of construction on the project, which will be an important complement to the thriving economy in University City. We’re also looking forward to major progress on two additional third-party projects this year: the former University City High School site we’re developing with Wexford Science & Technology for a new K-8 public school as well as commercial, retail and residential space; and a childcare center and residential development at 32nd and Race streets, in partnership with Radnor Property Group.
Altogether, Drexel’s strategy has attracted a remarkable $475 million of third-party investment to Philadelphia, fulfilling our responsibility to spark regional economic growth without using any of Drexel’s financial resources. And we spent much of 2014–15 working behind the scenes on the highest-impact expression of that strategy: the Innovation Neighborhood at 30th Street Station, where new private development will house both Drexel academic programs and commercial and academic tenants seeking a collaborative intellectual work community. This fall I look forward to announcing the selection of a master developer to coordinate the future work on this landmark, 20-year development project.
One exciting dimension we will explore as the Innovation Neighborhood unfolds is its potential to amplify our neighborhood partnerships in Mantua, Powelton Village and West Powelton. A new economic engine adjacent to strong, safe neighborhoods can drive the job-creation and employment training programs we are already piloting through the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, and help to realize the neighborhood’s potential as one of only five federal Promise Zones.
Decision Point: Affirm Our Commitment to Drexel’s “DNA”
Even as Drexel changes with (and ahead of) the times, the concept that defines us remains the same: Our teaching and research are driven by real-world challenges and opportunities.
The Drexel Co-op continues to be the reason many students choose to come here. And the wisdom of that decision is confirmed in research reported by the Brookings Institution this year, which found that Drexel bachelor’s degree holders earn $17,852 more than graduates of comparable institutions, placing them in the top 13 percent of graduates from all four-year institutions. That is remarkable evidence in support for our value proposition, and it proves that Drexel is well suited to meet the demands of today’s students. This year, we will work to tell the story of co-op, our greatest differentiator, far and wide.
Drexel’s research enterprise is broad and interdisciplinary, but our focus on translational research sets us apart. That strength led to Drexel being ranked No. 61 on the list of universities receiving the most U.S. patents in 2014, according to the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association. Remarkably, the universities grouped most closely around Drexel in the rankings spend two to three times what we invest in research. That level of productivity and creativity is the reason we’ve worked to put numerous resources in place to support innovation-based entrepreneurship at Drexel, including Drexel Ventures, the Coulter-Drexel Translational Research Partnership Program, the ExCITe Center and ic@3401, the Close School of Entrepreneurship, and the Office of Technology Commercialization.
Decision Point: Create Stability for the Law School
In eight short years, Founding Dean Roger Dennis and his faculty, professional staff and students built a quality law school closely tied to both Drexel’s experiential education leadership and Philadelphia’s outstanding legal community. They also weathered an economic storm, one that deeply affected the market for legal education and left the school with an uncertain financial outlook.
Enter Drexel Trustee Thomas R. Kline, one of the nation’s most respected and influential trial lawyers and a Philadelphia civic leader, with an unprecedented vote of confidence: the largest single philanthropic donation in Drexel’s history.
Thanks to Tom’s vision and generosity, the Thomas R. Kline School of Law has a solid long-term foundation on which to compete in the new legal landscape. The first cohorts for two new degree programs focused on international students — the LLM in American Legal Practice and the Global JD — arrived on campus in August from eight nations including Israel, China, Russia, Pakistan and Uruguay. And plans for the Thomas R. Kline Institute of Trial Advocacy, in the landmark Center City building donated by Tom, will begin to take shape this year.
Decision Point: Reenergize Drexel University Online
Drexel University Online (DUO) made great strides last year in retooling to stay in the vanguard of online education while integrating more fully into the University’s academic and administrative structure. New student enrollments exceeded the previous year by 7 percent and total online tuition revenue reached an all-time high. Twenty-nine new online programs were launched and 71 partnerships were begun, with companies like M&T Bank and Dollar Tree. For the year, online students accounted for 42 percent of all masters’ degrees and 44 percent of certificates awarded by Drexel.
One area in which DUO is a source of great pride for the University is the way it promotes our online programs among America’s veterans. Through the Department of Defense’s Yellow Ribbon Program, Drexel remains one of a handful of private, nonprofit universities providing tuition-free education to all qualified veterans, many of whom are turning to online education as a convenient way to expand their civilian career horizons.
To pave the way for veterans’ success, DUO provides targeted resources including a military program specialist to help them navigate education benefits, and dedicated social media communities for online military and veteran students. DUO recently launched a user-friendly, one-stop online tool called MySTEPs to reduce the time and effort it takes for transitioning veterans to create an effective military-to-civilian career plan.
Decision Point: Cultivate New University Leadership
We realigned the University’s administrative structure last year at the same time that we undertook national searches to fill several critical positions. We begin 2015–16 with a senior leadership team exceptionally well suited to serve Drexel.
Our academic enterprise is now under the leadership of Brian Blake, who we recruited from the University of Miami because of his deep experience leading faculty enhancement, research capacity development and graduate studies in a large portfolio of disciplines. Dr. Blake holds the expanded position of provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, with responsibility for all academic programs and operations at the University, including the College of Medicine.
I also promoted Helen Bowman to executive vice president, overseeing all financial and administrative operations. Helen has been instrumental in positioning Drexel to thrive in the new higher education climate, and is exceptionally well qualified and experienced to take on these larger administrative responsibilities.
David Unruh came on board as senior vice president for institutional advancement in November and helped guide the University through an exceptionally successful fundraising year. David and his team have begun planning for our most ambitious capital campaign ever, and I am confident they will take Drexel to new heights.
There was outstanding work done in every part of Drexel University last year — in teaching, in discovery, in service to society and in engaging and supporting our students. There were also difficult decisions made, and important changes in direction implemented. Because we were able to accomplish all of that together, today we can look forward to a year of continued excellence and new accomplishments. Thank you for your hard work, and please know how incredibly grateful I am for all that you do for Drexel.
John A. Fry