A Higher-Ed Boon in Bad Times

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With expanding physical plants and student bodies, area colleges ask: What recession?

By John H. Palmer

Despite a state economy still redolent of gloom and doom, most New Haven area colleges and universities are charting courses toward brighter futures.

Take a walk through any of the local institutions of higher education and you won’t have to look far to find obvious signs of rapid growth — millions of dollars in new residence halls and high-tech classroom buildings, new faculty, expanded and improved study programs.

In addition, you’ll see a sign of the economic times — record numbers of students, especially students already in the workforce who are looking to reinvent themselves and their skill sets.

“This is traditional for bad economic times,” says John W. Morgan, associate vice president for public relations at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. “People go back to school to learn new skills to make them marketable for new positions.”

Quinnipiac welcomed its largest freshman class ever in August, according to Morgan, with 1,647 enrolling in the incoming class to make a total enrollment of 8,000 undergrad and graduate students. Other schools in the area report similar growth trajectories. Southern Connecticut State University has seen a record increase in enrollment, according to assistant director of public affairs Joseph Musante. He says SCSU has experienced a third consecutive year of increase, and fall 2010 enrollment numbers are 1.3 percent higher than last year, bringing to total up to more than 11,000 students. Perhaps most interesting, Musante adds, is that the number of transfer students from community colleges is up dramatically, to 947 from 833 at the beginning of the 2009-10 academic year.

“We’ve been on an uphill for the last eight years, the last few we have been setting records,” Musante says. “It’s because we’ve put more of an emphasis on helping students make a seamless transition from the community colleges.”

At the University of New Haven, President Steve Kaplan says the size of this year’s freshman class is double what it was five years ago, despite what he calls more selective and competitive admissions standards. He says an aggressive marketing program has made UNH a more appealing place for potential applicants, and over five years the number of visitors at the annual open houses has increased more than sixfold — from 2,000 to 13,000 a year. As a result of increased applicants, Kaplan says UNH has been able to accept a lower percentage applicants and focus on quality. He adds that the average SAT scores of incoming UNH students has increased by 37 points over the same period.

“That’s very rare,” Kaplan observes. “If you get an increase of ten points, that’s good.”

At Gateway Community College, you’ll observe a trend that is rare indeed at a college — students in class at the crack of dawn. Identifying a need to cater to working students, GCC launched an Early Bird program last year that has some classes starting as early as 6:30 a.m., as well as a weekend program with classes on Saturdays and even Sundays. The program has been so successful, college officials say the programs will be expanded in December.

“People will get up early to go the gym,” observes GCC Director of Public Relations Evelyn Gard. “Now they will get up early, take a class and then go to work. It made perfect sense to us.”

A growing student body demands more program options, and colleges and universities have been forced to rethink curriculum offerings to keep up with demand.

“Clearly, in my day you got a bachelor’s degree to have a rewarding and financially successful career,” says UNH’s Kaplan, who is 57. “For this generation it’s about the master’s and Ph.D. Education just becomes more important in the marketplace. We are looking to create a more qualified and sophisticated workforce.”

Green technologies are also taking center stage. The University of New Haven recently added an interdisciplinary program in alternative energy sources, Kaplan says. He said the university also secured $500,000 in federal grant money allowing it to build one of only two solar product testing labs in the country. In addition, he says that mechanical engineering students on campus just developed a car capable of driving 500 miles on one gallon of fuel, and the marine biology department is under consideration for a federal grant to develop biofuels from algae in Long Island Sound.

“The most interesting part is the intent to involve students in preparing for the green economy,” Kaplan says. “We are responding to the marketplace.”

At SCSU, the focus is more on math and science, according to Musante, and the university just opened a brand-new Center for Excellence in Math and Science, which focuses on helping get young people interested in careers in those fields. Southern students recently went into New Haven public schools for Family Engineering Nights, performing science experiments with parents to help stimulate interest. In addition, the university got $600,000 in state grants to award scholarships for outstanding high school students who want to pursue math or science degrees. At least four languages, including Hebrew and Portuguese, have been added to the World Languages and Literatures department.

With an acute nursing shortage continuing in Connecticut, most schools have found themselves revamping their programs to keep up with an expanding need for nursing students.

In the fall of 2007 SCSU launched an accelerated career-entry program for individuals with a degree but who want to make a career change, making it possible to earn a nursing degree in a year. The program accepts only one out of four applicants.

“Those students are very busy for that year,” Musante explains. “With the nursing shortage this is one of the ways that we are trying to address that shortage.”

For the next academic year, he says, Southern is working on a collaborative doctorate program with Western Connecticut State University that will allow students to work toward becoming teachers in nursing programs.

Yale University continues to work on plans to overhaul its International Studies major, calling it instead a major in Global Affairs, according to the Yale Daily News.

After opening its new Jackson Institute for Global Affairs in 2009 with a $50 million donation, the university has been looking to expand its course offerings in response to student demand.

Yale public affairs officials did not return calls seeking comment by press time.

Quinnipiac and UNH both continue their program expansion initiatives as well. November 1 marked the first day on the job for Bruce Koeppen, MD, founding dean of the new Quinnipiac medical school, which is slated to accept its first students by autumn of 2013.

UNH continues to develop plans to study the feasibility of opening a law school, and Kaplan says the school is within two months of officially announcing the plans, which would put UNH in business with Quinnipiac and Yale Law in the New Haven area. In addition, UNH now offers a doctorate in criminal justice.

With expanding enrollment and programs, all these students need somewhere to live and study. Many area colleges and universities are going through greater of lesser degrees of physical expansion to keep pace with the growing demand.

One of the most visible of these expansions is at Gateway, which in 2012 is expected to move from its current Long Wharf location and North Haven branch campus into brand-new digs — a 360,000-square-foot building being built in downtown New Haven at the corner of Frontage and Church Streets. Estimated to cost around $200 million, the new facility will feature state-of-the-art classrooms and labs, a three-story library, a culinary lab, bookstore, and a branch of the Hill Health Center.

“It puts our students closer to downtown near the museums and galleries,” says GCC’s Gard. “Some of our students will actually be able to walk to the facilities they need. It’s going to be a very user-friendly environment.”

Yale plans to open a brand-new campus for its School of Management. Slated to open in 2013 at the corner of Whitney Avenue and Sachem Street, the project cost is estimated at $189 million. About $90 million has been raised so far, and the school recently received a $10 million donation from alumni Wilbur L. Ross to go toward building a new library in the structure.

Southern continues to be in the midst of a five-year, $260-million facility improvement that has literally transformed the look of the university. The centerpiece of the plan: the four-story, 125,000-square-foot Adanti Student Center that opened in 2006, tripling the size of the old one to the tune of $36.5 million. Features of the new building include a new bookstore, 500-person ballroom, food court and fitness center.

“We’ve had a number of people who were students who haven’t been her in a while come back and they say they can barely recognize it,” Musante says.

Southern has also renovated Buley Library and the Engleman Hall classroom building, adding 70,000 square feet of classrooms and offices, study lounges and department library. This fall, the university will begin the design phase of a new academic science building and will begin construction on a 1,200-space parking garage next to the Moore Fieldhouse athletic center.

Quinnipiac’s own expansion features new residence halls as part of its $300-million York Hill Campus project. The Crescent and Westview residence halls, which opened in August, are now home to 1,257 juniors and seniors in apartment and townhouses. Next year another residence, Eastview Hall, will open and house another 175 students.

The “crown jewel” of the York Hill project is the new Rocky Top student center overlooking Hamden’s Sherman Avenue. Featuring a rustic motif with pine and rustic chandeliers, the center seeks to replicate a lodge-style look and includes a 500-seat dining hall, security offices, fitness center and a large balcony with sweeping views of Long Island Sound.

Not to be outdone, the University of New Haven last opened up a $14 million building housing the university’s new Henry C. Lee Institute for Forensic Science. The “highly sophisticated learning center” acts as a home base for the world-famous forensic scientist who has called UNH home for 35 years and will allow law-enforcement officials from all over the world to take courses.

“Henry is a big part of our success,” Kaplan says of the new building’s namesake. “He brings name recognition all over the world, and he attracts a lot of students and philanthropy.”

Kaplan adds that the new structure was built with more than $10 million in donated funds, and features $1 million in forensic technology to allow Lee and other law-enforcement officials to work on forensic cases at the university.

In addition, Kaplan says that a $100-million facilities upgrade over the last five years has added almost $50,000 in computer technology to nearly every classroom at the university, providing students with electronic tablets for notetaking and transferring presentations onto laptops.

“Other universities are still dragging in the overhead projectors on a cart,” he says. “There’s nothing like being ahead of the curve in technology.”
 
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