YSU begins a new school year with hope tempered by reality

When Randy Dunn was picked earlier this year to serve as the eighth president of Youngstown State University, we said he would have to quickly articulate his vision for the open-access, urban institution because of the myriad challenges confronting the administration and board of trustees. Dr. Dunn, former president of Murray State University in Kentucky, sought to do just that Monday with his State of the University address to a packed Chestnut Room in Kilcawley Center.

Dunn presented a brutally honest report of the university’s financial health — it’s going from bad to worse — but also laid out a strategy for reversing the enrollment decline and making the 105-year-old institution an active participant in the Mahoning Valley through partnerships with companies, local governments and organizations.

And, what must have been music to the ears of the faculty, Dunn stressed that YSU must tout its excellence because “people are attracted to quality.”

Over the years, Youngstown State has had to deal with the reality of being almost an after thought in the overall scheme of higher education in the state, but recent advancements in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math college and the business college have put the university on the national map.

Much to the chagrin of YSU’s stakeholders, however, such strides towards excellence have not resulted in an increase in state funding. Instead, because of a change in the funding formula — the key is graduation, rather than full-time student enrollment — YSU stands to lose money.

Dunn warned that the $1.9 million deficit in the last fiscal year will grow this fiscal year. The decline in enrollment, which started in the fall 2011 semester, shows no signs of easing. While the final count will not be known for about two weeks, unofficial first-day figures show a 3.4 drop.

Former President Cynthia Anderson, who retired July 1 after a 34-year relationship with the university, and the trustees had anticipated a 1 percent decrease; 4 percent to 5 percent is within the realm of possibilities.

A 1 percent reduction in the number of students equals a $1 million loss in revenue.

But despite the bleak outlook for the short term, the new president is confident that a turnaround can occur — with the right marketing strategy and a redefining of “open access.”

“It’s time for us to start defining what open access means,” he told the gathering at Kilcawley. “Open access doesn’t mean open enrollment. “

In other words, just because a student has a high school diploma or a general education diploma doesn’t mean he or she should be enrolled at YSU. If remediation is necessary, Eastern Gateway Community College would be a more appropriate setting.

Transfer to YSU

Once the student is ready for the academic rigors of a four-year institution, he or she could then transfer to Youngstown State.

Dunn’s view should sit well with the higher education decision-makers in Columbus who have long argued that four-year institutions can no longer afford to provide students with what amounts to the 13th year of high school to prepare them for college.

What the new president of YSU has outlined is an ideal starting point for a regionwide discussion about the future of the university and its role in the larger community.

That said, we reiterate our long-held position that the state of Ohio must reward YSU for making higher education accessible to non-traditional students and to those who would be first in their families to earn a college degree.

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