Leading in a changing world: Rowan University transforms itself and its future

Q&A with Ali A. Houshmand, President, Rowan University

Rowan University, a public research university in Glassboro, New Jersey, is a national model for institutional transformation, recently named the fourth-fastest growing public institution in the nation two years running. Driven by bold and creative initiatives and partnerships, it boasts enrollment that nearly doubled from 2008 to 2020, to more than 19,700 students. In that time, Rowan opened a medical school (the first in N.J. in 35 years), integrated a second and partnered in a $426 million downtown development project that revitalized its campus and community. Rowan has $1.2 billion in facilities recently completed, under construction or in design and planning. Dr. Ali A. Houshmand has served as president of Rowan University since 2012.

What was your strategy for driving this impressive enrollment growth?
I firmly believed that in order to grow, we needed to improve simultaneously in these four areas: access, affordability, quality and economic impact. You cannot sustain growth at the expense of quality. By focusing on each of these four areas at the same time, we were eventually freed from the dependence on state funding and tuition and fee increases. We decided we weren’t going to balance our budget based on those funding sources. We committed to keeping tuition and fee increases to at or below the rate of inflation.

New Jersey has the highest-density population in the nation. Here in southern New Jersey, the demand far outweighs the supply for seats at colleges and universities. There are only four institutions in this area, not nearly enough for the number of high school graduates, so about 30 percent of them go to college in other states. That presented an opportunity for rapid growth if we did the right things.

By reducing costs and creating public-private partnerships, we were able to go from deficits to a budget surplus. We used those funds to hire more top-notch faculty, build our research capacity, improve campus facilities and increase our marketing budget, helping us earn national recognition and the confidence of private, corporate and foundation investors who share our vision. More students and their parents saw Rowan as a new option, and for many, we became their first choice.

How has Rowan worked to maintain affordability for students, and keep costs down for the institution?
When it came to costs, we adopted the philosophy that every nonacademic department of the university should be looked at as a business and should be managed using business principles to make them as efficient as possible.

After 10 years of discipline, we have gone from budget deficits to a substantial surplus. We then reinvested those savings back into the university, supporting scholarships, making campus and facilities improvements, adding and improving academic programs and supporting our medical schools. We were able to hire the best faculty from all over the country and invested heavily in applied research with private and public entities, which provides students with growth opportunities while in school, as well as stronger prospects for employment upon graduation.

As an economic engine for the region, we start by providing high-quality resources and services to students. With a better bottom line for our core mission of education, we can create opportunities for others to benefit from our strengths in innovation and efficiency.

What role have public-private partnerships played in your growth and success?
These partnerships were crucial to our new construction and infrastructure projects. For example, by using private investments to build our new dorms on land owned by the borough rather than our university, we set up a revenue sharing agreement with the investors where we made more revenue than if we had borrowed the funds, and the facilities are higher quality.

Rowan Boulevard, our major downtown development project, was built on land owned by the borough of Glassboro and was also built through public-private partnerships. It expanded our footprint, but also greatly benefited the community with jobs and business development. This was an area that used to generate $110,000 annually in tax revenue, that now generates over $5 million. Higher education institutions can truly be engines of economic development in their communities.

Rowan created a formal partnership with two local community colleges, which are now renamed Rowan College of South Jersey and Rowan College of Burlington County. What inspired those partnerships?
It might seem counterintuitive at first to partner with community colleges. Some see it as “giving away” your enrollment to have students attend their first two years there, but I don’t see it that way. The more people we help to educate, the more we are doing our job as a state institution.

By getting as many introductory courses as possible taught at the community college level, that significantly reduces tuition costs and student debt overall. That in turn results in higher retention and completion and graduation rates. It also means that our faculty can focus on teaching higher-level courses. That effectively doubles the capacity of the institution in terms of instructors. In addition, it creates a funnel system, where these community colleges feed students directly into our university. That’s a stable source of enrollment during a very volatile time.

In 2018 Rowan officially became an R2 research institution. How have you prioritized research to earn this designation?
We invested heavily in research and faculty. Our board committed to investing $50 million over 10 years in seed funding, which supports initial research to help secure grant funding. We have been able to hire faculty who are much more qualified and dedicated to research than in the past, we added new Ph.D. programs, and we built many new research facilities, including doubling the size of our engineering and business buildings. By partnering with a regional health care system and securing funding from the state, we helped build a new $500 million research hospital. We put research at the forefront.

What are your plans for the future?
I can sum up my strategic plan in one sentence: make Rowan University a proactive institution, rather than a reactive one. When I became president, our research, fundraising and continuing education revenue combined was less than $10 million annually. Today it is $120 million annually. Our plan is to continue this trajectory; significantly growing fundraising, investing aggressively in research so that we become an R1 research institution, and continuing to grow through partnerships or acquiring other institutions. We intend to move into online programs in a massive way.

Our strategy is a cycle, where we grow revenue, then reinvest those funds to increase the quality and prestige of the university, which grows revenue further. We’re going to continue in this direction. The future is bright!

To learn more, visit www.Rowan.edu