Dream Scenario: West Chester University (PA)
Before COVID I visited anywhere between 10 and 15 schools during the first six months of a year. I sometimes left campus with a dream scenario about the school I had just visited. For instance, what if Cornell was in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, a place with waterfalls, close to New York City? What if Miami University of Ohio, the school that poet Robert Frost called “the most beautiful campus that ever there was,” was located immediately outside Cincinnati, instead of being an hour away, on a drive through farmland? In both cases, these schools would need to have a larger admissions staff. The volume of applications would be higher than it is now.
Sometimes a school is in a great location and market for students, but not in the best possible circumstances to capitalize on those advantages. One such school is West Chester University, a public university located less than an hour’s drive from Philadelphia.
West Chester University is part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). It has just under 15,000 undergrads and about 3,000 graduate students. A Pennsylvania resident can pay less than $20,000 for tuition and fees, room and board, not much more than Penn State or Temple would charge for tuition and fees alone. The choice of programs in business, education and health care is impressive. The school is located within walking distance of a very nice college-oriented downtown. You can also catch a bus into Philadelphia from there, though it’s not hard to have a car on campus.
This school houses nearly 40 percent of its undergraduate student body, about the same as Penn State’s main campus in University Park. About half of the student body is on campus on weekends. Greek life attracts just over ten percent of the men and 15 percent of the women. But these organizations do not have their own houses. West Chester also attracts ten percent of its students from outside Pennsylvania. Most regional public colleges would love to be as fortunate to draw as well from outside their region. I took and collected a few photos of West Chester that I’m glad to share on Pinterest.
The Philadelphia metro area needs West Chester University, a reasonably priced public alternative to Temple.
.Six years ago, Pennsylvania legislators proposed that West Chester leave the State System, and become state related, just like Temple or Penn State. The State System continues to have fiscal problems while enrollments have dropped at several of its campuses. Some of these campuses, including two that I have visited as a college advisor (Bloomsburg and California), might see their educational missions change. But West Chester’s enrollment has grown by 4,000 since 2008. It’s the second-largest university in the Philadelphia metro area after Temple, located in Chester County, with over a half-million residents, one of the fastest growing suburban counties in the Northeast. West Chester University’s endowment was $46 million in 2018, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. But this school has over 50,000 alumni in and around Philadelphia registered in LinkedIn.com. That’s 12,000 more than Villanova and more than twice as many as Rutgers! It’s only 4,000 less than the University of Delaware. And I’m not considering the alumni who live elsewhere.
I really wondered: What could West Chester become if it was a more autonomous school?
My hunch is that West Chester University would need to charge more to offer more career development and student services. But it would still need to charge significantly less than Temple. West Chester could become a stronger hub of online adult, continuing and graduate education in business and education to help employers and employees in the Philadelphia area. The school doesn’t need more residence halls at present, but it needs to do more to bond the campus community.
I know I’ll get raspberries for this, but the best bonding mechanism at a school this size, near a major metro area, is a higher-profile sports program.
True, sports cost money, But West Chester University is already competing in varsity scholarship athletics. This school plays 23 NCAA D-2 sports. Temple plays 19 in D-1. The NFL Philadelphia Eagles used West Chester’s football stadium for training camp for 16 years, well before the more recent renovations. Today, this school hosts the third-winningest college football program in NCAA D-2 history. Last season, according to the NCAA, the West Chester University Rams averaged just over 5,600 fans per home game, 15th among NCAA D-2 football teams. Villanova, which plays D-1, averaged 6,000. Many other D-1 football programs do worse at attendance than West Chester has done at the D-2 level.
Ok, this is a dream scenario. What if West Chester University could expand its 7,500 seat stadium to play D-1 football?
West Chester would not compete in the American Athletic Conference where the Temple Owls roost. But could the school fare well in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA)? Build up local rivalries with Villanova and the University of Delaware? Ok, two CAA schools have stadiums that seat more than 22,000 fans: James Madison (just under 25,000) and Delaware (22,000). But the rest of the conference’s schools have an average capacity of 10,500 seats.
West Chester is already used to competing in a playoff format in D-2. A good team could go on to be a higher seeded host in a D-1 Championship Subdivision playoff conference. Playing games that matter would enhance the visibility of the school. It could also bring more of the community to campus. Not to mention that West Chester would earn more money as a visiting team, especially at the larger stadiums, and gets into the TV package for a higher-profile conference.
The opportunities are also interesting for men’s and women’s basketball. The basketball Rams could play in the CAA, with rivalries between Drexel and UDel. There are also opportunities to face other schools in the legendary ‘Big Five’ in Philadelphia: Penn, La Salle University, Saint Joseph’s, Temple and Villanova. But West Chester’s Hollinger Fieldhouse seats only 2,500 fans, and it’s tough to add more to an indoor venue. Hollinger is too small for the CAA or the Atlantic 10. However, it is not too small for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). The MAAC has schools in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. They also have a TV contract. I’m sure that they’d love to add the Philadelphia market. Not to mention that West Chester’s basketball players would relish the chance to play in the true Big Dance.
I know some will consider the dream scenario blasphemous or ridiculous. But how far fetched is it to add 3,000 seats to a football stadium and find a higher profile basketball conference, at least to bring more revenues into your athletic program?
I know that athletics brings traffic and parking issues as well as costs associated with football scholarships and coaches salaries. But a dream scenario is a vision, not something where someone snaps their fingers and it appears. Yes, it takes time to win, but wouldn’t the Rams attract more fans, including the students, by playing higher-profile rivals? Is it possible that more prospective students would consider West Chester if its athletic program was higher profile? I welcome comments and debate.
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