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Tuition was rising, appeal was falling. Here’s how Drexel University is stopping the slide

Drexel is bringing in and retaining more freshmen under an enrollment overhaul instituted four years ago, its leaders say. The university, which had long been regarded as one of the nation's most expensive, has kept tuition and room and board increases to no more than 2 percent over the last couple years and has frozen staff wages.

Drexel President John Fry touts success of the university's enrollment overhaul. He recently got a five-year contract extension, to 2023.
Drexel President John Fry touts success of the university's enrollment overhaul. He recently got a five-year contract extension, to 2023.Read moreDavid Swanson / Staff Photographer

Four years ago, officials at Drexel University looked at enrollment numbers — and didn't like what they saw.

Only 8 percent of students offered admission had chosen to enroll, down from nearly 25 percent less than a decade earlier. With tuition, fees, and room and board hovering around $60,000, Drexel was showing up in rankings as one of the nation's most expensive schools. And not enough of its freshmen were making it to graduation.

So Drexel overhauled its enrollment process — a risky venture in a highly competitive marketplace, one with a declining number of high school graduates and a battle to recruit them. Along the way, it is also cutting costs and capping tuition increases.

It has not been a smooth ride. Two years ago, 600 fewer freshmen came than the year before. For a private, tuition-dependent institution, less revenue meant cuts in staffing, wage freezes, employee unrest.

"Candidly, there were panic moments," said Randall Deike, a Drexel senior vice president who oversees enrollment. "You can't turn a ship this large and expect everything will be where you want it to be in a year or two."

Fast forward to this spring: The university's most recent six-year graduation rate — 71 percent — was the highest in school history. Nearly 90 percent of freshmen returned for sophomore year in 2017, up five percentage points from four years ago. Drexel is on target this fall to enroll one of its largest incoming classes.

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There is still progress to be made on the West Philadelphia campus of the 24,000-student university. But officials are confident about the change in direction.

"We made the principled decision to really do something courageous, and step back and reinvent ourselves at a time when most people would have said, 'Why are you messing around with this?'" said president John A. Fry. "I think the reward is big, full, super-qualified classes of students who are really happy to be here."

Drexel's board of trustees appears satisfied, too. Last month, it unanimously voted to give Fry, 58, a new five-year contract to 2023, which would extend his tenure to 13 years and enable him to continue his focus on raising the university's local and national profile. Contract terms were not disclosed. Beyond presiding over new buildings, a renovated campus quad and better landscaping, Fry initiated the $3.5 billion Schuylkill Yards plan that seeks to transform University City in one of the region's defining development projects.

Ludo C.P. Scheffer, outgoing chair of Drexel's faculty senate and a professor of psychology, is a bit more cautious about its future.

"I always said, change in enrollment strategy was the right thing to do, and I still believe that," said Scheffer, who is stepping down Friday from the faculty leadership after five years. "I'm still cautiously optimistic. It's been a very painful ride… but I think if we see the same kind of enrollment numbers for the next two years, then I think we are really on a different path."

‘Is this the right model?’

For years, Drexel was flooded with applications — more than 50,000 a year — but few applicants were serious. Some didn't even know where the school was.

So Drexel in 2014 added a $50 application fee and eliminated its "VIP" fast application, which allowed students to skip the essays and recommendations and apply with little more than a mouse click.

The hope, officials said, was to attract applicants who were truly interested in Drexel, a private research university with a law school, business school, and medical school, and known for a co-op program that sends most students into the workforce for a few semesters during their college career, enabling them to get paid experience and typically graduate in five years.

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In the first year after changes to the process, applications fell by more than 50 percent and the number of enrolled freshmen declined to about 2,900.

The smaller class meant less tuition revenue — an expected decline but one that led to layoffs of several dozen administrative employees in 2015.

The next year, freshman enrollment plummeted, to about 2,300, less than hoped for. Though other factors were in play — two of its biggest competitors, Temple and Pennsylvania State Universities, took unusual steps that may have drawn students away — the sudden decline in Drexel freshmen caused significant angst.

"When the bottom fell out, people were like, 'Is this really the right model?' " Scheffer recalled. "We all anticipated there would be some pain. We just didn't realize what the depth of the pain would be."

With enrollment down, Drexel was faced with lowering its standards and admitting more students, or holding the line and keeping the strategy in place. Drexel took the smaller class. "Enrollment isn't about who you enroll, it's about who you keep," Deike said.

The school froze wages that year for staff and faculty earning more than $75,000 (although top administrators got deferred compensation, a form of a bonus). More than 140 faculty and staff also agreed to an early retirement package.

During the last school year, the school froze all staff and faculty wages, and did not award deferred compensation. Fry, who earned $1.9 million in 2015-16, according to the most recently available tax records, said he, too, took no wage increase.

Overall, Drexel cut more than $100 million in the last five years, Fry said.

Some cutbacks also were driven by Drexel's decision to cap annual tuition, fee and room and board increases to 2 percent through next year, addressing concerns that the school had grown too expensive. Tuition, fees and room and board for incoming students this fall will reach $67,358.

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"At one point we were one of the [country's] top five most expensive," Fry said, referring to a review of institutions Drexel considers to be its competitors. "We're now out of the top 10 and heading further back into the pack, which is where we want to be. Our price is coming back in line with our value."

He anticipates that annual increases won't top 2 percent for at least the next three years. Fry also said he intends to propose wage increases later this year.

"I'm very proud how we weathered through this transition," he said. "I think it took a whole community working really hard together."

Changes on and off-campus

Drexel has also revamped its recruitment and orientation for new students. Before Deike arrived, the university made only 75 visits to high schools; this year, admissions officials visited more than 2,400, especially in growth areas such as the Southwest.

The school re-formatted its week-long orientation and even changed the move-in process, hiring a company to assist with moving in the large volume of students; this year, the school expects 3,350 freshmen this fall.

"It has done a world of good in community-building," Deike said.

Drexel officials hope the gains continue — to return to 25 percent of students who were accepting actually enrolling, to improve selectivity (it accepted 77 percent of applicants this year, not much different than before the overhaul), and graduate 80 percent of students within six years. They also hope to see improvement in the quality of incoming freshmen, which has gotten better in terms of average GPA, but not in standardized test scores.

"There have been some bumps," Deike said, "but I think we have done exactly the right things."