Wilberforce University has suffered a number of financial and legal woes in recent years but the school’s leader thinks new enrollment growth will allow administrators to tackle those issues more aggressively.
Wilberforce — the nation’s oldest private historically black college — will this year bring in one of its largest freshmen classes in recent history. Classes started Aug. 1.
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Around 300 first-year students are expected to sign up by the time enrollment closes on Thursday, said president Elfred Pinkard. Last year, the university’s freshman class was included close to 135 students and the entire undergraduate student body was around 484 students.
The university would like to increase enrollment to around 1,200 to 1,500 students within the next five years, Pinkard said. That increase would bring Wilberforce back to its peak enrollment of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“I know there are colleagues of mine from other institutions reading that and saying ‘those numbers are small,’” Pinkard said. “But for Wilberforce and where we have been over the last five years, that is a significant increase.”
The university has stared down a number of public struggles in the last five years.
From mid-2014 through most of 2015, the university was at risk of losing its accreditation because of declining enrollment.
The school was issued a “show cause” order from the Higher Learning Commission that was later lifted in November 2015. If the college had lost its accreditation, its students would no be eligible for federal financial aid.
Then in November 2016, the school slashed $750,000 from its payroll and months later then-president Herman Felton put 10 acres of the campus —including two buildings —up for sale for $7 million. The university wanted to sell and then lease back the property, senior vice president for finance William Woodson said at the time.
But, Pinkard has scrapped plans to sell a portion of campus because they were not “advantageous for the university,” he said.
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More recently the university has become the target of lawsuits claiming the school owes companies money. Moraine-based Moonlight Security filed a $50,000 lawsuit against the school in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court while JayCee Development in Washington, D.C. sued the university in federal court for more than $3 million for unpaid construction work.
“They’re unfortunate and they’re in the hands of our attorney and we will respond accordingly,” Pinkard said. “We’re saddened that its gotten to this point but we just recognize that this is just part of doing business and we hope to resolve these matters because we don’t want them hanging over us.”
The enrollment bump, Pinkard hopes, will help the school turn the corner on some of its troubles.
Tuition is often the largest single source of revenue for colleges, meaning increases in enrollment translate to more funding funding. That’s good news for a school like Wilberforce that needs more money to address its outstanding issues.
“It means we can begin to address some of the financial concerns that have plagued the institution for the last several years,” Pinkard said. “We can begin to look out how we can come out from under some of those challenges.”
Enrollment has become and even bigger focus for colleges as they begin fighting for a declining number of high school graduates. The number of high school grads in Ohio is expected to decline by 13,000 by 2021 or so, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
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Like Wilberforce, Wright State University has suffered from its own enrollment decreases in recent years and is trying to find innovative ways to attract new students. Trustee Bruce Langos called for WSU to be “disruptive” when it comes to enrollment and president Cheryl Schrader has hired a consulting firm to assist with ideas.
Enrollment is hyper competitive so outreach by colleges has become even more important, Susan Schaurer, Miami’s assistant vice president for enrollment management and director of admissions has said.
Wilberforce sent representatives to the historically black Concordia College in Alabama last spring to recruit students because the school had announced it would shut down. The university also recently hired a recruiter to attract students from Atlanta and is staying in constant contact with interested high school graduates.
While Pinkard admits there’s more work to be done at Wilberforce, he said the school’s enrollment is a sign that the university is “rebounding” from its troubled recent history.
“This indicates that we can do it, that Wilberforce is capable,” he said. “We’re capable of turning this institution around and making it an attractive and viable choice for students seeking a college education.”
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