A lot has changed at Rosemont College since Sharon Latchaw Hirsh took over as president in 2006.
The small Catholic liberal arts school on the Main Line went coed nearly a decade ago. It began to offer online graduate-degree programs, overhauled how it charges tuition to appeal to more middle-class students, and made SAT and ACT scores optional for admission.
Now comes more change.
Hirsh last week announced that she will step down as president next May, after 14½ years at the helm. That’s more than twice the average tenure for a college president. The only other four-year college presidents in the region who have been at it longer are Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, and Sister Carol Jean Vale, president of Chestnut Hill College. Hirsh’s departure will come one year shy of Rosemont’s 100th anniversary.
“I just think it’s a good time,” said Hirsh, who will be 72 when she departs.
Though Rosemont, like many other colleges, faces challenges, Hirsh — a 1970 Rosemont alumna — remains optimistic about its future.
“Rosemont is going to survive, because I know we’re operating as this little, tiny machine,” she said this month. "We just keep doing what we need to do.… We don’t have a significant endowment, but we also don’t have significant, out-of-proportion debt, which has been part of the concern of some other colleges.”
Rosemont has been taking steps to stay competitive and respond to a dip in high school graduates nationally. In 2009, it welcomed its first class with men. Today, about 35 percent of its students are males.
In 2016, the college slashed its tuition sticker price by 43 percent, to $18,500, although the savings for students wasn’t as stark because the college also doled out less financial aid than in the past. But the lower price helped by attracting more middle-class families who thought Rosemont’s previous tuition of $32,500 was out of reach, Hirsh said. Next year, it will be $19,500.
Also, in a bid to attract more students, Rosemont dropped its requirement this year that applicants submit SAT or ACT scores.
“You have to be constantly changing and adapting, on small levels, on major levels,” Hirsh said. “You can’t be afraid of anything.”
The college’s current traditional undergraduate enrollment is 471, down from just over 500 a decade ago. Rosemont expects to hit its freshman enrollment target of 110 this fall, she said. And while Rosemont is anticipating a deficit, it’s nothing that will adversely affect operations, she said.
More change is on tap. The college has decided to put more resources into programs for professional and graduate students, a population that isn’t facing the same downward enrollment trend as traditional undergraduates. More than 470 students are enrolled in those programs. The school has added a program in applied psychology, an MBA in health-care administration, and a master’s in homeland security and emergency management.
Rosemont also has engaged in a proliferation of partnerships with other colleges and businesses, and she said more partnerships are in the works, most notably a closer relationship with its much larger neighbor, Villanova University.
“We are in conversation [with Villanova] now about some other partnerships,” she said. (The provosts from both campuses are meeting, but details aren’t ready to be released.)
The two schools for many years have offered cross-registration, letting students at one campus take classes at the other. Also for years, rumors have swirled that Rosemont might merge with Villanova. Hirsh said she remembers hearing it when she was an undergraduate. Rosemont looked at the pros and cons of merger more than a decade ago and decided against it.
Hirsh said that was the right decision and still is.
“If you have a huge company merging with a smaller company, there’s no compromise,” she said. The small one gets absorbed.
In the last decade, Rosemont has partnered with Independence Blue Cross to deliver courses at its corporate headquarters. It has developed a nursing program partnership with Drexel; a path for Rosemont’s undergraduates in sports management to go onto the graduate program at Neumann University; and a cross-registration agreement with Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.
Rosemont also belongs to a consortium of eight local colleges, most of them Catholic, partnering to achieve cost-savings. The schools host an annual symposium for honors students.
“It’s a fantastic experience that we couldn’t replicate as a single institution,” she said.
Under Hirsh, the college also upgraded its athletic complex, library, dining hall, and theater, and purchased and renovated a Victorian house as a residence for honors students. It also completed a $40 million fund-raising campaign in 2017.
Born in Pittsburgh, Hirsh, an art historian, spent her career at three institutions. She completed her graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh, then was hired by Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where she taught for more than 30 years. She left Dickinson in 2005 to become acting president of Rosemont when its then-leader became ill.
She’s not sure what she will do next. She definitely plans more time with her new grandson. She might finish a book she started at Dickinson.
She doesn’t want to teach. She loved it, but not its accomplice — grading.
“All the exams were essay-based,” she explained, “and I would end up writing more than the student wrote.”
She also plans to return to Rosemont for her 50th reunion in summer 2020 and the college’s 100th anniversary the following year.
And her name will live on: The board of trustees this spring voted to rename the new 73,000-square-foot campus building under construction. It will be called the Sharon Latchaw Hirsh Community Center.