Drexel Pulls Back

The ambitious private university is charting a new course than curbs some its efforts to expand outside of Philadelphia. 

March 27, 2015

Drexel University has begun to scale back a series of expansion efforts, a sign that the university’s ambitious plans may not have played out as hoped.

The university mostly recently decided to shut down a campus in Sacramento, 3,000 miles from its main campus in Philadelphia.

After just a year, Drexel also scaled back a partnership with Philadelphia-area community colleges.

Perhaps most significantly of all, the university has completely changed how it goes about enrolling students. After years of enrollment growth based on easy applications, it says it is now trying to curb the number of students who apply.

The changes have pleased some parts of campus and given others -- particularly some faculty members in Sacramento who could lose their jobs -- a bit of whiplash.

In the strongest sign that Drexel leaders are undertaking a series of course corrections, officials said they are pleased to see the number of students trying to get into Drexel plunge from 55,000 last year to about 29,000 this year.

The most physical change, though, will be Drexel’s decision to shut down its far-flung campus in Sacramento.

President John Fry inherited the Sacramento operation from late and longtime Drexel President Constantine Papadakis. A California developer and acquaintance of Papadakis’s, Angelo Tsakopoulos, offered Drexel a massive tract of land on which to build a campus.

Like other East Coast colleges hoping to set up shop out West, the original plan never worked out as intended: at its simplest level, Drexel was supposed to sell some of the land and use it to build a major campus. Then the market crashed and Papadakis died.

Fry decided not to take the land, which is now being developed by a British university. Instead, Drexel set up only a small Sacramento outpost to offer graduate classes in an effort to build brand identification for Drexel. Now, Drexel is ending even that effort.

The decision was made by Fry following a memo last fall by his then-new interim provost and others.

James Herbert, the interim provost, said he looked over Drexel’s operations with several other top officials. Their report found that the Sacramento campus and a community college partnership announced in January 2014 had become distractions.

“Neither of them were sufficiently critical to our core mission at Drexel,” Herbert said in an interview. “It was sort of like mission creep.”

In Sacramento, Herbert said he looked over the finances using a new model and found the picture “doesn’t look so rosy.”

Drexel had earned praise for expanding a community college program that brought the university’s faculty members to Philadelphia-area community colleges. Each class was small, so officials wondered about the program's long-term viability.

And, while Drexel has focused on expanding access, Herbert said, “There are other ways of providing access instead of going out in the suburbs.”

In Sacramento, Drexel is in talks with University of the Pacific to find a way for students to finish the degrees they began in California. As for the community colleges, officials said that while they are still trying to make it easier for community college students to transfer to Drexel, they will stop sending Drexel professors into community colleges to offer classes.

A New Tack on Enrollment

Randall Deike, the new senior vice president in charge of enrollment, who worked with Herbert on the report last year, is also making major changes in admissions.

University officials said Drexel had made it too easy to apply, and too many students who had little desire to attend Drexel were sending in free and easy applications. The numbers bear this out, in a staggering way: only 8 percent of the students Drexel admitted last year decided to enroll. Deike, the enrollment director, said he didn’t know of another college with such a low yield.

Deike said the college was now looking to slow growth and so had ended some practices that encouraged a deluge of applications.

The university now requires applicants to pay a fee and write an essay. Before, students could respond to an email and be considered an applicant.

“Our goal is to recruit and enroll alumni, not freshmen,” Deike said.

Drexel had also been front-loading financial aid, meaning first-year students could receive a generous scholarship only to see it cut substantially in the second, third and fourth years at the university. That can make students harder to retain because the change in price can upset them and make it harder to pay for college.

“It’s not a good strategy to provide students with a package that changes from one year to the next,” Deike said.

Fry inherited the enrollment growth effort but also made it part of his own initial strategic plan. Eventually, though, the thinking began to change: the longtime admission director left at the end of 2013 following a report by the consulting firm Huron that outlined a shift in approaches. Before Huron came in, Drexel’s plan had been to increase growth 45 percent, to 34,000 students, by 2021.

Huron noted that not only was Drexel’s yield low but it was losing admitted students left and right to other institutions. For instance, 60 percent of students who got into Drexel and another college in Philadelphia picked the other college over Drexel, according to Huron.

The university is also doing another major internal shift and changing how it allocates money. It adopted an approach called responsibility-centered management, or R.C.M., which is advanced by Huron and others.

Under the model, each unit of the college is more responsible for its own revenue and expenses, meaning academic programs that don’t make money will have to find ways to make money or scale back.

In one potentially significant shift, the university is spelling out in internal documents how much undergraduate tuition revenue will be going to research, rather than to supporting instruction: 20 percent of every dollar.

The university said that ratio is roughly unchanged but, in the past, has been implicit rather than explicitly stated.


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