DANBURY WCSU ‘moving forward’
DANBURY — College leaders believe this year could prove to be a watershed moment for Western Connecticut State University as the 115-year-old campus in the heart of Danbury prepares to enter a new era.
After eight years of declining enrollment and state budget woes, the first eight months of 2018 have provided a litany of accolades.
The business school received a prestigious national accreditation, WCSU researchers discovered a new tick’s presence in the state and the vaunted theater arts program won 10 honors from the Kennedy Center.
But most importantly — the school is growing again, University President John Clark said last week.
The new 919-student freshman class is a 10.5 percent increase over last year’s class and the new group’s average 1111 SAT score is the highest ever recorded for a WCSU incoming class.
“We’re moving forward, whatever happens, and we’re up to the challenge,” Clark said. “We just have faculty and staff who are up to the challenge. We thrive in adversity, just keep it coming. We believe in what we’re doing, we’re not going through the motions, and we’re seeing some success which is so critical.”
The new growth has been a long time coming since the recession crippled the economy a decade ago and the size of high school graduating classes began to decline across the state — with the notable exception of Danbury.
WCSU’s total student population followed suit, dipping from a high of 6,500 in 2010 to just over 6,000 in 2013 to about 5,600 total students last year, according to school statistics.
The decline ultimately left about 300 beds empty in the school’s residence halls — the equivalent of about $3.6 million in would-be revenue from room and board, Clark said.
To help cushion the drop, the university launched its programs to provide in-state tuition across the state line in New York and New Jersey.
The idea to become the regional university for both western Connecticut and the Hudson River Valley was met with skepticism until Clark showed leaders that three of the five biggest high school graduations WCSU hosts at O’Neill Center each summer are from Brewster, Carmel and North Salem.
This fall there are 357 students from New York and New Jersey — a 34 percent increase over last year’s class.
“A kid from Long Island isn’t commuting,” Clark said. “We need to fill those 300 beds and that will really get us up to where we were about 6 or 7 years ago. Additional revenue means additional services for all our students.”
The in-state $10,00 price helps WCSU compete with $5,000 and $7,000 tuitions at New York colleges, and even though its higher, still offers an extreme discount from many of the private schools across the Northeast, Clark added.
“There’s almost this bias” against public higher education, Clark said. “I’m a product of both public and private schools, but we’re trying to break this mythology in the Northeast.
“When a student comes here, like our nursing department or theater or music, I want them to really feel like ’I’m getting top-notch quality, second-to-none, and the price doesn’t reflect the quality. Actually, you’ve got to be nuts to go to someplace else for all that money.”
Renovation and innovation
The school has become a critical community partner, pumping out medical professionals to work at Danbury Hospital and collaborating with area businesses, Mayor Mark Boughton said.
“They seem to have turned the corner, which is really good,” Boughton said last week. “We’re excited about that. They really are a different campus now as they continue to evolve into the marketplace and Dr. Clark has done a terrific job at strengthening those bonds and leveraging them to get more students.”
This semester the school also rebranded itself with a new logo in the shape of a sheild, reflecting its past logos, to try set itself apart and resonate with new students.
The university has matured physically, too, with a new $6.45 million police station on Roberts Avenue this spring and a $22.7 million renovation of Higgins Hall at the center of the midtown campus this year and next.
All of that movement gives Clark new hope about the cynicism surrounding the state’s financial straits.
“We’re not your mother and father, but we should have an attitude that we care about each student,” he said. “The students that are struggling, we need to get them help. The students that are superstars, we really need to raise them to their full potential.”