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President Cornacchia Delivers State of the University Address

President Eugene J. Cornacchia, Ph.D., delivered the following State of the University address to faculty, staff and administration yesterday afternoon in the Mac Mahon Student Center.

Good afternoon. Thank you for this opportunity to be here with you today. I’d like to talk to you about the state of higher education and how it impacts Saint Peter’s University now and in the future.

It is clear that higher education is in crisis. Too many people can no longer afford a private college education. Many more are unwilling to pay for a private education because they doubt its value given the current economic environment. Government at all levels is questioning the cost structure of our institutions as well as the quality of our “product,” in other words, our outcomes. The economic model under which we have operated for so long depended upon steadily rising tuition revenue fueled by marginal enrollment gains and significant tuition and fee increases. Tuition and fee revenue was, and still is, heavily dependent upon indirect government subsidies (e.g., Pell, TAG). Operating budgets were also supplemented in some states, including New Jersey, by direct operating aid (ICUAA).  Since the Great Recession hit in 2008 we have been constrained by (1) very modest tuition increases that barely kept up with inflation but did not provide real revenue growth; (2) mostly flat government subsidized student financial aid; and (3) the complete loss of direct NJ state aid. Further complicating our situation, and that of many other institutions, has been the poor performance of endowments over much of this time.  Only recently have they begun to rebound.

It is generally accepted wisdom among government officials, economists, journalists, and college and university presidents that our economic model is broken. This certainly should come as no surprise to anyone.  But the gravity of the crisis we face was driven home to me just a couple of weeks ago when I met with members of Congress in Washington, D.C., for the Annual National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) Congressional Forum. Every member we met with expressed their appreciation for what we in independent higher education do, their understanding of the challenges we face, and their sympathy for our plight. However, they made it clear that support in Congress for federal financial aid is no longer guaranteed or likely to be without conditions.  Sen. Bob Menendez ’76, one of our most ardent supporters, commented that we “will simply have to learn to do more with less.” The picture at the state level is even less encouraging: a number of state legislators have told us that our institutions have to “stop living in a bubble.”  And at our recent Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) Presidents’ meeting, a key topic on our agenda was “Inter-related financial challenges:  labor-intensive classrooms, costly technology, cuts of federal and state financial aid, lack of optimism about the economy, and the cost-cutting options schools are envisioning.” From the big budget, large endowment institutions to the smaller budget and modestly endowed institutions, there is an uneasiness about the future, a deep-seated anxiety that big changes are necessary for Jesuit and liberal arts institutions to prosper, indeed to survive.

So it is clear that we have to accomplish three things nearly simultaneously: increase revenue, control expenses, and redeploy resources to achieve our priorities. I have great confidence in our ability to accomplish these aims. Certainly, it will not be easy. However, we have tremendous intellectual and human capital here at Saint Peter’s University. It can only be accomplished by a great partnership among the faculty, staff, administration and students.

How will we accomplish these three inter-related goals?  Clearly, enrollment is the key revenue driver. Though it needs to be supplemented by other sources (fundraising, rentals, etc.), it will always be our chief source of revenue. Thus, we must continue to build and sustain a robust enrollment operation that utilizes the best practices in enrollment management, including a highly professional enrollment staff in partnership with faculty, staff, current students and alumni to get the Saint Peter’s value proposition out into an increasingly competitive marketplace. We need to stand out, apart from the competition for our affordability, the quality of our instruction, the attractiveness of our programs and delivery methods, our student-centered approach to learning and services, and most distinctively, our Jesuit, Catholic character.  We need to continue to win in our local and regional markets. It is not good enough any longer to be very good at what we do. Too many other factors matter to today’s prospective students than quality—affordability and outcomes/jobs, for example, are of primary importance today. But given the demographic time bomb we face of declining domestic college age population, it is imperative that we make headway beyond our traditional market and move strategically into the international market.

We have already made important down payments on strengthening our enrollment effort.  We have built the best admission/enrollment management team I can recall in many, many years. Armed with new leadership under Jeff Handler and Beth Sullivan, we crafted a successful recruitment plan that bore fruit with this year’s recent record new student enrollment.  In addition to the great work of our admission team, that worked harder than ever on the road and back here, our support staff in admission effectively and cheerfully processed the huge number of inquiries and applications.  Our financial aid strategy was also a major contributing factor to our success. Under Jenn Ragsdale’s leadership, we processed financial aid applications quickly and earlier than ever. Our strategy was to be out as early as possible with the best financial package possible, to reduce applicant anxiety over affordability, and to reduce the number of post-acceptance appeals. And we were successful. We also hired Lewis Cárdenas as Dean of International Recruitment. Lewis is an experienced professional who will represent us abroad in countries where we are likely to get some traction.  Though it takes some time to get results, we are confident that with Lewis’ contacts and his boundless energy we will see progress.

As we look forward to the AY2014-15 recruitment cycle, we will have to be even more creative than this past year. We will get financial aid awards out even earlier than before and we have tweaked our financial aid model to adjust to trends we saw in this year’s acceptance pool. By the way, a successful enrollment effort must be dynamic, adjusting to trends in our inquiry and application pool as well as trends in the larger marketplace.  So our enrollment goal is to at least match this year’s number of 697 new students.  So far, the data suggests we are on target to do so but the weather has created some speed bumps for us but we have a great team and I am confident we are on track.  It’s important to acknowledge that an increasingly key component of enrollment is transfers. We have had great success in this area as well. Historically, we have been at the bottom of the ranking among private institutions in New Jersey for the number of inbound transfers–second from the bottom in fact. Now we are seven out of fourteen.  My thanks to the Admission team and especially those in the Deans’ offices for their work on this as they take turns going to Hudson, Essex and other community colleges. They have made this a notable success.

Enrollment is not just about new students. It is also about retaining and graduating the students we enroll. We must continue to do better on both fronts. But we have made significant progress here as well. I wish to applaud the leadership of Mildred Mihlon and the entire Persistence and Graduation team for their work to increase retention and graduate rates. Programs such as Homestretch, extensive outreach efforts from the Dean’s office and the coordinated efforts with academic support services, enrollment services and institutional research the six year graduation rate has risen from 47.6% five years ago to 54.2% which is the national average for institutions similar to Saint Peter’s. Our fall to spring freshmen retention rate is 95.5% (our highest in 11 years) and for transfers it is 90.7%.  And our overall fall to spring conversion rate is 94.5%. There is much to celebrate in these data.  It is your commitment to excellence in the classroom, to personalized advisement and to the overall support of students that has contributed to this record retention.

A healthy enrollment picture also depends on robust adult recruitment.  In other words, we need to meet our enrollment targets in all areas.  Growing graduate enrollment is part of the strategic enrollment plan to address the demographic changes I mentioned earlier. That is why we have added, and will continue to prudently add, new graduate programs such as the MPA, the MA in Strategic Communications, the MS in Data Science with a concentration in Business Analytics, and the doctoral program in education.  In fact, the Graduate Education Program is doing especially well this year; enrollment in the new doctoral program is particularly robust, growing to 98 students in just two years. This May we will graduate our first education and nursing doctoral students.  New program development at the undergraduate level is also critical to our enrollment success.  Our programs in Health and Physical Education and Sports Management are doing very well. The online RN to BSN program also has had a very positive impact on enrollment with a current headcount of over 100 students in 2.5 years. Plans are also underway to expand online offerings at the doctoral level.

But effectively executing a top-notch and comprehensive recruitment strategy is not enough.  In addition to successful program development initiatives, the emphasis on quality and on building a strong liberal arts foundation with career preparedness for our students is, and must continue to be, a major focus.  Activities which support these goals include the achievement of candidacy status with The International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE) for the University’s business programs. The accreditation visit is scheduled for the end of March and I wish to publicly thank Dean Goldberg’s leadership along with the business and accountancy faculty for spearheading this initiative. It is a significant accomplishment.  Also enriching the academic experience for our students is the Fulbright Lecturer program and Provost’s Lectureship in the Humanities.  Also supporting these goals – A new software program launched by Career Services will open up both internships and career opportunities for our students in a much more efficient way–over 150 employers have signed on already. Student Life, under Carla Tharp, is implementing its co-curricular plan and I have appointed a task force to develop a strategic plan for athletics chaired by the Provost Yam.

Of course none of these initiatives would mean much without you and the extraordinary quality of the instruction and personal attention that you provide our students every day. Your efforts ensure that we will remain an attractive institution to prospective and current students and one where they can learn and grow in a nurturing environment. Assessment data strongly supports your role in making the academic experience one that students greatly value. Your continued dedication to the craft of teaching and to scholarship makes this a very special learning community. And your service on a host of demanding committees and task forces shows your dedication to this institution’s continued success. Thank you.

By the way, I think it is important to recognize the extraordinary leadership of Dr. Yam in academics and student life. She has been invaluable to our efforts at new program development, strengthening academic quality, student life, athletics, and chairing the Strategic Planning and Budget Committee–all key ingredients to our future success.

In addition to enrollment, we have to grow revenue in other areas as well.  Our Conference Coordinator, Lauren LaGreca, has been working hard at maximizing the attractiveness of this new Mac Mahon Student Center as a venue for meetings, conferences, and galas. In addition, she is coordinating our effort to use our facilities here and in Englewood Cliffs during the summer for additional revenue.  Conference and special event net revenue has grown and we will continue to explore unique and creative ways to generate non-tuition revenue across the University’s facilities. Another important piece of information in the non-tuition category involves the endowment. Endowment performance was positive with a +14.33% return for 2013. At December 31, 2013 the portfolio balance was $31.7M, up $3.8M for the year.

In this context I should also mention the McGinley Square Development Partnership. Our agreement with Sora Development will transform McGinley Square into a spectacular mixed use facility that will include a cinema, retail, restaurants, student housing, market rate housing and a parking garage. This project has already been the focus of a Wall Street Journal article, has the support of local council people, the mayor and other key city leaders.  It is a vitally important University initiative not only for the great benefit it will provide to our neighborhood and the local economy, but also because it is very important to the future financial stability of the University.  Saint Peter’s is a 15% equity partner in this development. Once it is up and running it will begin to generate a revenue stream that will help support the University’s goals. The value of that revenue stream runs into the millions of dollars. We need more of this kind of creativity–thinking outside the box–to find new ways to support our core mission.

In addition to growing revenue, we must also face the challenge of keeping expenses down. Growth in health insurance costs, liability insurance, legal fees and a wide range of contracted services continue to put pressure on stagnant operating budgets. We will need to get even more creative and vigilant in monitoring and controlling expenses than ever before. To that end, we have added two positions over the last year and a half that will go a long way in helping us to be more efficient: the Director of Purchasing and the Director of the Budget. As Director of Purchasing, Mark Crossan will ensure that we adopt and follow best practices in contracting, acquiring products and services, and in getting the best value for our limited expense dollars. Though new processes are often a challenge, especially while we learn the new procedures and system, the Board believes we will derive substantial benefit from this new system and so we will fully implement our purchasing module and procedures this year. Our new Director of the Budget, Peter Mandell, will assist in the development of the University’s budget, monitoring our budget to actual progress throughout the year, and reporting to budget managers, the Cabinet and the Board. It is essential that we be more vigilant than ever in managing our budgets; Peter will ensure that everyone knows exactly where they stand at all times. Should problems arise he will alert us to those problems in a timely manner so we can take steps to ameliorate the problem.

Though these positions are essential to helping us do better with what resources we have, I also believe we need to explore other creative ways to deal with rising costs, including possibly shared services with other institutions. We will do so wherever we can that makes fiscal sense for us.

Finally, given the reality of the continuing economic and fiscal pressures that we will face, where will the resources come from to do the things we need to do to remain competitive and to build a solid base for future growth?  Fundraising will surely play a large role.  Thanks to the efforts of the Advancement team, under the direction of Michael Fazio, our capital campaign, Students at the Center, now stands but $500,000 short of its overall goal of $62 million.  This is an amazing accomplishment and we are immeasurably grateful to the alumni, friends, faculty and friends who have made it happen.  But realistically, fundraising alone will not be nearly enough to achieve our goals.  We must face the reality that we will have to reallocate budget resources from within existing areas to those tasks and initiatives that have the promise of growing revenue and making us more competitive. This is never an easy task for it is fraught with significant implications. Yet, it is imperative that we make those choices, even the tough ones.  And we will do so prudently, thoughtfully, strategically and transparently.  But it will be done.  We owe this to all those who came before us and worked hard to create a great Jesuit institution in New Jersey, to those who today work every day to serve our students and each other, and we owe it to our current students whose hard earned dollars fund our enterprise. The Strategic Prioritization Process is one that will help us focus our attention and resources on those areas that are most essential to our future growth and stability.  We know that we cannot do everything we would like to do so we will have to make choices and the Prioritization process will help us sharpen our focus and more effectively utilize the great human and financial capital that we have. Inaction is simply not an option.

The blueprint for the path forward will ultimately be embodied in our new Five-Year Strategic Plan. As the strategic planning process proceeds, it is essential that we envision a new future for the University. To successfully navigate the increasingly challenging landscape we face, Saint Peter’s University will seek ways to be distinguished: as a creative and innovative Jesuit, Catholic university; as an institution that educates ethical leaders to serve their communities and the greater world; and as a community that values its location and engagement in the most diverse metropolitan area in the nation, if not the world.

Of course, at the core of our distinctiveness as an institution is our Jesuit, Catholic character.  Through the amazing work of our Office of Campus Ministry, we have seen an amazing growth in student participation in liturgies, especially Sunday evenings, our community service and global outreach initiatives have never been stronger, and recently we won a $5,000 grant from the Campus Kitchen Project sponsored by the Sodexo Foundation to establish a student-run kitchen that will keep food from being wasted and will provide nutritious meals for those in need.  I am so grateful to the entire Campus Ministry team for their exemplary leadership.

Finally, I am grateful to all of you.  And I know our students concur.  Our University is strong because of you.  Yes, we have more work to do but, together, we will succeed.  Thank you.