When Dr. Nancy Blattner first became president of Caldwell College in 2009, she took her cause to the streets. Or, in this case, to the dorms.
“I spent six late nights in the residence hall talking with students about what they liked and what they wished was different,” she said. “The first of those six meetings that started after 10 o'clock and went on well after midnight had over 160 students in attendance.”
She not only took their suggestions — which included extended hours for the library and fitness center and finding a new, local food service provider — but she found a way to act on them. And others.
It has made a big difference.
The Caldwell-based school has seen constant growth over Blattner's five years as president, going against the downward trend in higher education.
On July 1, the school had a milestone moment when it was upgraded to university status. Blattner, however, doesn't want all the credit.
“I think Caldwell had really become a university before I came, and it was simply a matter of recognizing the reality and claiming the status it had already worked toward,” she said.
It was planned by the college to claim this new university status in conjunction with Caldwell's 75th anniversary on Sept. 19. But when Blattner received the notification from the state last December, she made the decision to roll out the new brand in July.
“Trying to do this with signage and stationery and everything else that would be entailed by our name change would have been very difficult during an academic year,” she said. “I can't take credit for too much of it except I had the vision we could become Caldwell University because I saw all of the components already in place.”
She cites very strong faculty credentials, a supportive library system and a budget committed to the graduate program.
Whatever the reasons may be, Caldwell definitely has something going for it. And it has the growth to prove it.
The school welcomed a class of 330 students last fall, its largest to date and a nearly 10 percent increase from its previous high two years ago.
This year Caldwell will welcome more than 370 freshmen, another significant increase for the university.
When Blattner first arrived at Caldwell five years ago, there were 420 students living on campus. This fall, she is anticipating more than 600, up from last year's 543.
This year's total enrollment will exceed 1,300, up from 950 five years ago.
Blattner sees these trends as being unique to Caldwell.
“Frankly, it's going against the trends in higher education with the economic downturn that occurred six years ago and lasted for a long time,” she said. “Many families were still supporting their students to have a college education, but many made the decision that if they could commute, they would live at home to save on those expenses.”
And Caldwell could easily be a commuter school: 85 percent of its students are from New Jersey, the vast majority of which come from Essex and its bordering counties.
The remaining 15 percent, Blattner said, come from out of state to participate in their athletics as well as a few of their more unique programs.
“We have, at this point, the only doctoral program in applied behavior analysis, which is the discipline that evaluates people on the autism spectrum and also works to intervene to provide behavior modification,” she said. “That program is in its sixth year and we have had graduates of that doctoral program the last two Mays.”
It doesn't hurt that Caldwell's price is right. At least by comparison, according to John B. Wilson, president and CEO of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of New Jersey.
“In our sector of higher ed in New Jersey, the average tuition — in round numbers — is $30,000. And the average debt is pretty close to that,” he said.
Assuming her post in the midst of the recession, cost is something Blattner has remained aware of.
Caldwell's tuition for the upcoming year will be $28,900.
“We have tried to do everything we can to be very cost-conscious and to keep down the cost in tuition and room and board,” she said. “The balance has to be that we provide students with these support services.”
According to Wilson, it might not be the education driving up these costs, but rather these student services. From 2001 to 2011, in the private institutions that offers master's programs, the cost of instruction rose 10.9 percent and the cost of student services rose 24.3 percent, he said, citing an Aug. 1 study in Chronicle of Higher Education.
For Blattner, it's all about what she sees as the biggest reason students commute to Caldwell from near and far: to participate in a collegiate community where they feel they have a voice.
“The students believe that they have a voice that is heard and they have a direct line to me,” she said. “And I think that's one of the reasons why we're seeing the excitement we are today on campus with more students living here and more students coming to Caldwell.”
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Health care costs tied to rising tuitions
What’s raising the cost of college? The answer may be the Affordable Care Act.
“The programs have had to fall into compliance with ACA standards,” said John B. Wilson, president and CEO of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of New Jersey. “A plan that was basic for the students used to cost around $400 to $500 a year. Now, that plan is between $1,200 to $1,500 a year.”
Caldwell University President Nancy Blattner said it’s a bill that must be paid: “We know that our graduate and undergraduate students — and this is true nationwide, not just at Caldwell — are manifesting more mental health issues,” she said. “Stress is something that the vast majority of all college students report they have. We need to have trained professionals on campus to work with our students as they’re going through stresses on campus and in their personal lives.”