Chronicle on Quinnipiac’s expansion

It’s funny that I should have to turn to another publication to learn more about my own university, particularly a university that is (and prides itself on being) so small and community oriented. It’s too bad our own Chronicle isn’t writing stories that are equally as revealing. Today they are running a story entitled “A Private College Builds on Its Confidence” (available to subscribers here).

The article provided an interesting outsider’s perspective, since our president refused to comment on it. (Why? Beats me.) Although I have heard some talk of tightening our collective belts a bit in the coming years, I didn’t realize why. It seems we have maxed out our credit cards in order to facilitate our expansion to two new campuses.

Now, the expansion is absolutely necessary. Over the last few years our enrollment has continued to grow, and we are still a tuition-driven institution. We need the buildings to house our new students, and we need the new students to pay off the buildings. It’s a pretty classic set of demands that really require us to get bigger if we want to get better.

I don’t worry about the financial position of the university, which the article suggests may be precarious. Nothing wagered, nothing gained, and the reputation of the university has increased substantially even in the short time I’ve been here. Our standards are also increasing, though not as rapidly. Don’t get me wrong, I think students here get a very good education. Can you get a better education at a larger state university? I think you probably can, with a lot of effort and luck and dedication. Will you? Probably not. I think if you compare the average student in our programs with the average student of most large schools (public and private) you will find that our students learn significantly more in their time here, and are far better prepared to enter the workforce. My concern is not the finances directly, but what it might mean for the quality of our education, and of our student body.

The article suggests that Quinnipiac is banking on continued enrollment growth, during a period when college enrollment is predicted to decline. If it turns out that we cannot sustain that enrollment and continue to increase the standards for admission, I fear that we will lower our requirements for admission; the economic conditions would require it. Tuition is already steep, at nearly $40,000 a year, and with housing costs on top of that, I don’t think the market would bear an increase in tuition. So this means that we would be forced to admit students who are not as capable. Moreover, if we follow the pattern of other universities, that means tracking students who are less capable into degree programs designed to accept them, while concentrating the brightest students in programs meant to be standard-bearers. The university has already started down this path, picking out programs that have the potential for “national prominence” due to their “excellence.” This leads naturally to those in departments not picked for “excellence” to feel a lot less enthusiastic about expansion; one of my colleagues has suggested that if we have “excellence” programs, the others should remain “proud of their mediocrity.”

The other worrying statistic revealed in the article is that the university plans to expand its faculty by 45, or about 9% during a period when it expects graduate and undergraduate admissions to grow 20%. This, to me, seems especially worrying. During a period, for example, when Fordham has announced it plans to move undergraduate teaching loads to 3-2, Quinnipiac has increased the graduate program teaching load to 4-4. Now, I’m not teaching 4-4 (far from it), but even with all the caveats, having to tell applicants that is our teaching load is a hard sell. It’s made easier by the fact that our classes remain small, but that is also threatened by the necessary growth of the student body.

From a more personal perspective, I don’t particularly care where the university places its focus; obviously I want my own work and my own program to be “excellent.” Actually, I’ve decided–unilaterally–that if the journalism and PR programs in our school are targets of excellence, the interactive communication program (in which I mainly teach), should target “awesomeness.” Excellence is easy, dare to be awesome. Unfortunately, since the “awesomeness program” is only in my head, it may not translate to resources at the university level. I should say, that certainly is not the problem now. The Interactive Communications program has been very well supported and nurtured by the School and the University. But as pressures increase, I’m sure it’s better if you are thought of as a target for national prominence.

There is always a drive to increase enrollment in every university. I would hate to think that the cost of the expansion of facilities would drive down our admissions standards. There is always an alternative to expanding outward, and that is capping (or reducing) the incoming class size, and increasing the quality of the faculty and instruction. I would far prefer Quinnipiac became a tiny, elite institution than it became a giant, fairly good private university.

In any case, it is exciting to be at a school that is changing so rapidly, and that seems to prize entrepreneurism within. After nearly two years, I have to admit that I am continuing to try to find my place, and constantly finding my assumptions–based on teaching elsewhere–fail me in understanding the culture of the place. I know for certain that Quinnipiac in five years will look nothing like it does today, and although I can sympathize greatly with those for whom this idea is worrying, I am instead excited to see what those changes might bring, and eager to put my own thumbprint on a program that strives for awesomeness.

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