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Why West Chester, at 150 years old, has emerged as the state system’s best

West Chester is the least expensive university of 14 in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. And it’s arguably the most successful.

West Chester University freshman Maddie Weaver, right, with assistance from her father Ron Weaver, left. and mom Kathe Weaver, center, move into her campus dorm Monday Aug. 23, 2021.
West Chester University freshman Maddie Weaver, right, with assistance from her father Ron Weaver, left. and mom Kathe Weaver, center, move into her campus dorm Monday Aug. 23, 2021.Read morePHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

Maddie Weaver grew up hearing her father talk about how much he enjoyed attending West Chester University, where he played golf, studied marketing, and mostly had fun.

Then a visit to West Chester, home of the Golden Rams, cemented her choice.

“I definitely felt at home,” said Weaver, 18, a freshman business-marketing major from Lancaster.

Ron Weaver also noted West Chester’s relatively low cost compared with private schools.

“It’s the value and it’s a great experience,” the 1981 West Chester grad said, as he moved his daughter into her residence hall last month.

With tuition, fees, and room and board that run less than $20,000 for an in-state student, West Chester is the least expensive university of 14 in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

And as it celebrates its 150th anniversary, it’s arguably the most successful.

While collectively the state system universities have lost 22% of enrollment since 2010, West Chester — the largest in the state system — has continued to grow. It has nearly $159 million in its budgetary reserve, the largest of any other school by almost twice as much, even though it receives the smallest per-pupil subsidy from the system.

West Chester also tops the system when it comes to student performance. About three-quarters of its students graduate in six years. It was the only Pennsylvania state system university to appear in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s most recent national list of 50 public universities with the best graduation rates. It ranks the best in retention: 85% of freshmen become sophomores.

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Unlike most other state schools, the university clearly benefits from being close to Philadelphia, but that means it also has more competition for students and faculty. The university has access to a large pool of adjunct professors, which can keep costs down and allow for flexibility. About a quarter of its professors, the most allowed under the union contract but far less than some private colleges, are adjunct. It’s also nestled in a borough with a vibrant downtown and restaurant scene that has appeared on some best college town lists, a draw for students and faculty looking to raise families.

But West Chester also has driven its fortunes. It’s developed a strong brand name, avoided the debt some universities have taken on to build expensive residence halls, intentionally kept costs down and focused on adding programs that attract lots of students, while shifting resources away from those in decline.

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“West Chester’s success is attributed to something far greater than its location and population growth,” said Daniel Greenstein, state system chancellor. “It has to do with solid leadership and good decision-making at every level of the organization.”

150 years and going strong

Founded in 1871, West Chester started as a school that trained elementary school teachers. It became a college in 1926 and a university in 1983.

This month, the university kicks off its sesquicentennial celebration, including the announcement of a $65 million comprehensive campaign, the largest in the school’s history. It also is opening a 150th anniversary museum in its library.

On display are the sign erected when West Chester became a university; a Randall Cunningham jersey to note when the Eagles held practices on campus; and two books published around the time the school was founded: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and War and Peace, signed by authors Jules Verne and Leo Tolstoy.

Also in the collection are a 3500 model Donner analog computer from 1964, the first in a West Chester lab; a hat worn by one of the first nursing graduates; and a grade book by Ruby Jones, the first Black faculty member.

From more recent times, a T-shirt notes “Banana Day,” a tradition at West Chester dating back 25 years. Before finals, students compete in banana tosses, hunt for bananas, and play banana trivia, all leading up to finals when the fruit is in abundance.

Michael Di Giovine, associate professor of anthropology who oversaw the effort by students to research and prepare the collection, really likes West Chester’s vision and emphasis on teaching. Before COVID-19, he took students abroad to study ethnographic methods in Italy.

“You find ways to integrate students into your research and that gives them such a great experience,” he said.

Location, strong programs, small feel

West Chester, which enrolls 17,700 students, more than 14,000 of them undergraduates, is still known for its teacher education programs, accounting for about 16% of enrollment.

“I want to be a teacher and it had the best education programs,” freshman Collett Justice, 18, of Glenside said about her decision to enroll.

The university also has lots of students in business and psychology and a well-known music program. Its newest undergraduate degree is in biomedical engineering and newest graduate program is physician assistant.

Students note the small class sizes — the average is 22 — giving the university a small-school feel. They like the mix of modern and historic buildings, some with castle-like features.

For some students, it was about cost and location.

“It’s close to home, but far enough away,” said Chyna Hart, 28, a graduate student from Philadelphia. “It was reasonably priced, which was really important. I come from a single-parent family.”

Hart got her bachelor’s in communications at West Chester in 2015 and liked it so much she returned for a master’s in higher-education policy. She’s even hoping to make a career at West Chester, working to ease the transition from high school to college, something she found a bit difficult.

“I want to improve our higher-education system as a whole and just make higher education more accessible to all,” she said.

Leadership from the faculty ranks

R. Lorraine “Laurie” Bernotsky, the provost, also attributed West Chester’s success to its shared governance with staff and faculty. She pointed out that both she and the president, Christopher Fiorentino, taught at West Chester for years before rising into leadership.

“We all understand the centrality of having your faculty not just believing in but leading in the things that are really important for student success,” said Bernotsky, who started as a political science professor in 1996.

Fiorentino, who began teaching at West Chester in 1983, credited staff and faculty.

“A university is a collection of people,” he said. “If you can get that collection of people all pulling in the same direction, you can do something special.”

Mark Rimple, outgoing president of the faculty union and a music professor, also touted the relationship between the union and management. He noted that deputy provost Jeffery L. Osgood Jr. was once a union officer.

“You have people in management who understand what we need,” he said.

Fiorentino also cited a focus on student success.

The university a few years ago started special programming to improve student performance among those in what Bernotsky called “the murky middle.” While high achievers and low performers have always gotten attention, the school wanted to help those with less than a 2.66 GPA, who it found were more likely to struggle with graduating on time, she said. The effort includes a two-day special program over winter terms where students learn goal-setting and career development. They also get priority access to tutoring and to a success coach for the spring semester.

“We’ve already seen improvements in GPAs,” she said.

On Sept. 17, Fiorentino will give a welcome-back address to students, followed by an anniversary celebration, a state Senate resolution and House citation, and later a free performance by singer-songwriter Devon Gilfillian, a 2013 graduate.

Gilfillian is scheduled to present a signed copy of his album, Black Hole Rainbow, to be included in the museum.