Looking Forward to FDU’s Future, With the Interim President

In the third and final Q&A installment with Interim President Michael Avaltroni, he lays out FDU’s plans regarding tuition, dealing with a post-COVID campus and how the SOAR plan may dramatically transform the institution.

The interview was conducted by The Equinox’s special correspondent Giselle Mendez and has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Q: In the previous installment, you mentioned challenges with the cost of higher education. When I applied to FDU, former President [Christopher] Capuano had made a major tuition cut. For me, that was one of the reasons why I applied to a private university, FDU. I said, ‘well, I’ll give it a go.’ Will there be any future cuts in tuition again in the next few years?

A: I anticipate this will be the set tuition. The reset really put us in a position where I believe, if not the lowest, [FDU] is one of the lowest [in cost] private institutions in New Jersey. We also have very, very generous aid packages and scholarship packages.

We have people oftentimes look and say, “well it’s a private institution, I probably can’t afford to go to Fairleigh Dickinson, and it’s probably not competitive with Montclair or Rutgers or others.” But dollar-for-dollar, when you compare what many of our students are paying, when you combine our now-lower tuition with the additional aid through scholarships and grants and others, many times our students are coming here and attending for less money than at a peer state institution.

There’s tremendous value [at FDU] because you get all of the benefits of what a private education will provide, like smaller classes and faculty who know you, and less of those big 300-seat lectures that you typically would see in a place like Rutgers or Montclair or Kean, but you get the benefit of, oftentimes through this sort of lower structure of tuition, the additional aid, of really not paying more money to attend.

Right now, we see that where we’re at a competitive place. We are certainly looking to build new programs to help support students. Some of them will be through pipelines from high schools that will allow students to get a head start by taking college classes in high school, some of it may be a pipeline from community colleges to help students again to start to navigate closer to home and waiting to see where they go, to help them find a place at FDU. I think all of it is really focused on the value proposition of what we offer, and we believe that, or what we provide in terms of the structured support, that the intimate environment here of being very much on a campus where people know you and you know your faculty. I think all of that presents a great value for an FDU education.

Q: I’m an accounting major, and I looked through the school’s June 2021 financial reports. The school has a large revenue, but after all the expenses, it boils down to a very small net profit margin. Is that something the university is looking at right now?

A: It’s a problem across higher education. A lot of the dynamics have changed post COVID. As you said, a lot of folks who would have come and lived on campus in 2020 [did not return]. Obviously, we’re looking at a different option. A lot of students who would have looked to engage in a four-year education at any higher-education institution chose not to go. In some cases, they chose to go with a two year, in other cases, they chose to forgo college. So the dynamics have certainly changed over the past few years. I think across higher education, you’re seeing that we need to recalibrate a bit, and I use that as the word because it doesn’t mean we just start cutting things. It means we really change our focus to say what does higher education look like in 2023 and beyond, and then make sure that we’re built to support that. In some cases, that may mean maybe [fewer] students are living in residence halls.

** Catch up on the Part One and Part Two interviews with Interim President Michael Avaltroni. **

Q: The COVID pandemic brought down enrollment levels and many people were scared to return and live on campus. Is this a problem for FDU right now as a financial situation?

A: What we must do is support more hybrid learning, more online courses. If that’s what students want, in some cases, maybe it means adjusting courses.

Or, we have different living options for students because they desire private rooms rather than a roommate. All these things require us to rethink what we’re doing, and in some cases, maybe to retool it as well.

From a financial standpoint, that just means it’s looking at how we spend here, what do we allocate our resources toward and making sure that they align with the future of where we’re going. That way we’re supporting the best academic programming, the best campus programming, but doing so in a way that fiscally is responsible but also fiscally aligns with the direction that we desire to go and the places that we hope that we’ll get as an institution.

I would say that this is a nationwide conversation right now across higher education with very few exceptions, typically the Ivy League or other places where they have huge endowments, and this is, typically, not a burden. I think all of us are having a conversation of what does it look like to be sustainably on a path forward where you know that you’ve sort of built your systems to support learners in 2023 and beyond, so I think that’s a conversation that we’ll continue to have. You’ll probably see very positive changes to adapt our direction and our path forward.

Q: Past President Capuano, when he stepped down, mentioned in an interview that the university was close to completing its next strategic plan. He said he felt “new leadership should have the opportunity to finalize the plan and then fully execute the plan from start to finish.” Then, in your note to the FDU community, you mentioned the SOAR [Stabilization, Opportunity, Adaptation and Resources] initiative. What specifically does this mean for the Metro campus?

A: We’re in the process of rolling out [the SOAR] plan in stages. We’re getting, at this point, the opportunity to do some listening sessions with regard to some of the constituencies in the community. I anticipate that we will be doing in very short-order conversations. We’ve already had some with our student leaders. I’ve met with both SGA presidents and shared where we’re going. We’ve spoken about what needs there are from students, but the focus, when we talk about SOAR, which stands for stabilization, opportunity, adaptation and resources, is these four pieces as the build-out for the strategic plan to navigate us forward.

When we talk about stabilization, what we mean is to assess as students’ habits and patterns change — how do we assure that we’re in a stable environment to prepare to navigate the challenges that students experience, to navigate the patterns that students have changed toward, and in some cases, to be able to align ourselves in a way that we’re ensuring that students want to come here, that students want to live here and that students have what they need here? So that’s the stabilization focus, to really make sure that we’re student-focused. And what I’ve said on a number of occasions, when I spoke to our faculty and our staff, this really means taking a new perspective of student as center. We talk about students being the North Star in all of our decision-making: to focus our attention on what do students need, how do we better equip them for success, and how do we ensure that more students are coming, staying and graduating.

Those are the really the three metrics by which we will measure our success, and so we talk about ways to do that by making sure that all of our systems support students in their journey. The opportunity comes to where are the places that we can grow, where are the places we can differentiate, where there new markets for us to explore providing education across the state, online, in person.

Q: Will other parts of the school be involved as SOAR rolls out?

A: A couple of examples we’ve talked about is our FDU health brand, if you will, which has been the result of a long-established School of Nursing, and then, more recently, Health Science programs. We’ve built that in pharmacy, social work, physician assistant studies, occupational therapy, psychology, counseling; [we’re] building these into a concerted centralized unit that has the ability to draw from expertise, together giving us a new opportunity to differentiate and to potentially explore partnerships with health systems, with hospitals, with the state, frankly, to just build [for] a tremendous demand that we have right now for healthcare delivery.

That’s one of many examples we talked about, focusing more on, as I alluded to before, building pipelines for learners from the community colleges and from high school with a more supportive environment [to] talk about programs for adult learners and the opportunity for people to do return to school, to go and complete a degree that they may have started years ago, to go and, in some cases, upskill and get certificates, badges, credentials or graduate degrees to help them migrate through their opportunities to the next thing that they want.

So, all of that is opportunity for us. The adaptation piece really means is assessing what does the student need in 2023 and carrying through the next 10 years, and what should a college campus look like to support that?

Should a college campus, and this is sort of as you said, what would it mean for the Metro campus? We’re asking the question of what does a college environment need to look like? What types of buildings, what types of support services? What was built in 1950, when a lot of institutions did all of their buildings in brick-and-mortar work, doesn’t look the same as it does in 2023. What [does] a library look like [in the future]?

I just saw, and we’re not making this plan, but there was a college that just said they were going to an all-digital library. No more stacks, no more books. That’s a very interesting concept right now, because when you think about it, most people do most of their reading on a device. That’s not to say nobody reads on a book, but when you think about that change, what does that do? It frees up potentially a building in your library to reutilize for another student support service. This is the sort of thing that we talked about, adaptation.

Q: Is that when financial ‘resources’ will come into play?

A. It’s making our environment more relevant to the current environment, and then the resources is the final piece, which is, how do we pay for it? How do we allocate funds for it? How do we go and invest in the things we need to invest in, and in some cases, what do we need to reinvest our money?

And then, as you said, you know you’re in a major way, you will understand exactly this if you have a fixed sum of money that you get through tuition or funding or any other source. There’s oftentimes not money left over when you sell. We’ll just pull $20 million from just sort of [a] pile on the side, so it becomes a question of do we want to reinvest in things that we see are a better opportunity for us? Do we want to say, what used to be successful 20 years ago isn’t so successful now. So do we want to say, let’s pull back on this to put into that, and so that’s a lot of what we’re doing right now.

All of it is just setting a path to say, what do we see ourselves in five years? And that’s what strategic planning largely is. But in this case, I think it’s a real opportunity to do this at a time where you know higher education is changing every day, and so I think it’s a very unique time, and that it doesn’t just mean accepting the status quo. I think we’re going to see a lot of our thinking outside the box to say maybe this is an opportunity we’ve never capitalized on before, but it’s here and ready for the taking.

Q: So is your vision looking 20 years from now, and what that might that look like?

A: Honestly, it’s funny because things change so quickly that I don’t even know that I would say 20 years from now. We’ve often talked about what would it look like in probably 2030, but the way things change right now, it’s an eternity.

Years ago, in terms of what technologies we had and what resources we had and what we had available, you realize how drastically things have evolved. Had the pandemic happened a decade [ago], when we didn’t have such access to this technology, we probably would have had a completely different response. The work-from-home thing would never have been a reality. If you couldn’t do what we’re doing right now, which is three of us sitting in three different places and being able to communicate, if you just had telephone access, in a very short amount of time, people probably would have said, “forget this, let’s go back to work, and we’ll figure out how to navigate our risk.”

I think a lot of that is an example that, just a few years from the technology being adopted, we deployed it to switch billions of people and the way in which they work and the way in which they go to school. How much more rapidly this change will go is what we need to think about next, again, building for our future and the future of higher education.

Q: That is true. If this had happened 10 years ago, this would all have been different.

A: There would have been no way we could have ever survived and functioned in the way of just saying, “oh yeah, well, just don’t worry about it, we’ll take the meeting online,” or “oh yeah, I’ll see you online or whatever.” That would have never been real. People would have had to assume risk because it would have been the only way to deliver a lot of the things we needed to deliver.

So much of it is continuing, and what we’ve seen is that even with all of the technology switch, people still value community. So this is still a desire to be around the people, they still have desire, so it’s also finding a balance. It doesn’t mean switching so the technology becomes the only modality, because even in fully online learning, a lot of the evidence shows that you’re not always desiring to be fully online. You want to engage with people. Maybe it doesn’t mean three hours a night to sit in the class, but it means coming together [to] let’s just talk about what we’re learning, let’s just talk about how you’re doing. I think that’ll always be this balance, and that’s the balance we must find as we’re sort of building for the future.

Q: If you had the power to change one thing in higher education, what would it be, and how would you go about implementing the change?

A: I would say the thing that to me, my highest priority, in thinking about how higher education needs to change, is access. I think we have had far too limited, and access to too many people we see, you know huge socioeconomic gaps, in who can access higher education and be successful here, we see so many gaps across race and ethnicity.

We see gaps across gender that are now closing somewhat but have been perennially a problem, even especially in areas like STEM.

Frankly, we have a problem not just with accessing higher ed but with once you get here, the rates of success to get out with what you set out to do, and that’s, to me, the biggest change we need to make.

It is a change, thinking about how do we get higher education into the hands of more people, meeting them where they are, providing them the tools to be successful and bringing them through to the finish line, because, to me, the worst thing in the world is to have students who can’t get here because they don’t have the means or the tools or some sort of a barrier puts up a place where they can’t get to.

Equally terrible is when a student comes here and starts, or in any institution, and doesn’t get the degree that they start, and they say, I can’t do it anymore. They end up as one of those very, very growing demographics of people who have some college and no degree, and oftentimes they carry around the burdens of debt or burdens of the payment on the college without the degree to show for it.

So, the hope would be, as we make the change as an industry and here at FDU, that we provide greater access and greater support to see more students able to come, more students able to succeed, and more students able to graduate.

I’m hoping that the impact that we have in investing in all the things we’ve talked about today, and others, produces a better pipeline that’s more supportive and shows a better outcome on the other side.

FDU Interim president Michael Avaltroni talks leadership with a group of students earlier this week in the SUB.

FDU Interim president Michael Avaltroni talks leadership with a group of students earlier this week in the SUB. (Equinox photo)