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Higher Education Soars Higher

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Delaware’s private colleges continue to make great strides under the direction of (from left) Jack Varsalona of Wilmington University, Gary Wirt  of Goldey-Beacom College and Bill Johnston of Wesley College. Photograph by Jared CastaldiAs the University of Delaware reaches for national stature, and both Delaware State University and Delaware Technical & Community College continue to expand, Delaware’s private colleges burnish their images outside the spotlight. Dissimilar in many ways, the four schools—Goldey-Beacom College, Wesley College, Wilmington University, and Delaware College of Art and Design—share goals, frustrations, and a desire to broadcast new messages. 

 
“We want to lift the awareness level of our institutions to the greater population and weigh in together on state and regional issues that may affect the privates,” says Wesley president William Johnston.
 
This newfound togetherness has emerged from periodic breakfast meetings convening principals from each of the four schools—three presidents and a veep. Wesley’s Johnston, Wilmington University president Jack Varsalona, Goldey-Beacom vice president Gary Wirt and DCAD president Stuart Baron have formed the Delaware Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, a vehicle for professional exchange and low-key lobbying.
 
“We share [information about] programs, training,” says Wirt. “Sometimes we decide whether or not to close in the snow.”
 
Delaware Association of Independent Colleges and Universities also has been trying to convince the state legislature to expand the playing field for private colleges. The focus is the STARS (Delaware Student Academic Reward Scholarship) program embodied in proposed legislation. Under STARS, DelTech and UD associate’s degree students who have received scholarships per the state’s existing SEED (Student Excellence Equals Degree) program and graduate with a grade-point average of at least 3.5 would be able to extend those scholarships for two more years at either UD or Delaware State.
 
“We want all private colleges and universities to be in STARS,” says Varsalona, whose school has provided scholarships on its own dime to qualifying SEED grads. “Let the money follow the student.”
 
With a portfolio of seeds, stars, new campuses and, now, online colleges, higher education is clearly a growth industry in Delaware. The four privates have been participating in that trend and are pleased that prospective students can choose from a wide spectrum in the state.
 
But college, like life, is competitive. Says Wirt, “We need to sell ourselves and what we do well.”
 
The evidence suggests they do many things well. The following snapshots provide some clues.
 
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Goldey-Beacom College

 Growing Programs, Growing Up
 
When curriculum planners developed a bachelor’s degree concentration in computer forensics and installed it in 2007, they were not sleuthing for a new TV series or dressing up the course catalog. The Goldey-Beacom playbook calls for speed, timeliness—and results.
 
“Small schools can turn on a dime,” says vice president Gary Wirt. “We stay responsive to what students and employers need. You don’t want to train kids and send them out the door if the jobs aren’t there.”
 
Training entails more than academics. The school has built an enviable job placement record by emphasizing perspective as well as skills. “Our focus is on students not just looking for jobs, but developing an entrepreneurial mindset to compete in the new economy,” says career services specialist Rebecca Leyson.
 
The school’s origins were rooted in the old economy. Educator Harry Goldey founded Wilmington Commercial College in 1886. His ambitious instructor, William Beacom, opened competing Wilmington Business School nearby at the turn of the century. The schools’ names and locations changed more than once through the next few decades, but there was room at the table for students from both. Typewriters clacked, Dictaphones clicked and life was recorded in shorthand. Secretaries—male as well as female—and bookkeepers emerged to join corporate America. Goldey and Beacom colleges merged in 1951. They based operations at Beacom’s building at 10th and Jefferson streets in downtown Wilmington. In 1974, following a protracted period of inner-city strife and declining enrollment, the school moved to its current campus in Pike Creek Valley.
 
Goldey-Beacom’s 24 acres on Limestone Road include four garden apartment-style residence halls that house some 300 of the school’s 1,600-plus students. Tennis courts, athletic fields and, in the deceptively commodious Joseph West Jones Center, a sleek modern gymnasium, all host the Lightning’s NCAA Division II action. The campus has gone wireless. It features a sophisticated computer lab and networked classrooms.
 
Two-thirds of Goldey-Beacom’s students are from Delaware, and more than half are undergraduates. The school draws mainly from within a 30-mile radius, yet it recruits well beyond the vicinity. Fifteen percent of those living in the dorms are international students, some faculty come from overseas, and President Mohammad Ilyas is from Pakistan. “Business is global,” says Wirt. Students profit from the school’s international flavor, he says, adding, “We’re still viewed as business-only, but we’re not.”
 
Indeed, last year the school added economics, health care management, and sports management to its roster of bachelor of science degree programs in accounting, business, computer sciences and other disciplines. Goldey-Beacom has offered bachelor’s degrees since 1978. A new bachelor of arts program in psychology will launch in the fall. Master’s programs in management, taxation and finance have joined the master’s of business administration program that began in 1992.
 
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Wirt says the new psychology program will prepare students for careers in child counseling, substance abuse counseling and human-service work in general. The business world, though, remains Goldey-Beacom’s prime target, and sometimes the feeling is reciprocal.
 
Many technologies ago, Joe Jones (namesake of the student center) graduated from then-Beacom College. He toiled as a secretary at Coca-Cola, then headquartered in Wilmington, before becoming a senior vice-president. Years later, the widow of longtime Coke CEO Roberto Goizueta enriched Goldey-Beacom’s endowment for the purposes of establishing a scholarship for Latino students in her late husband’s name.
 
For all prospective students, the college promises an assortment of financial aid packages to parry a substantial chunk of the annual $17,000 tuition. For matriculated students and even former students, Wirt pledges an administration that listens and responds.
 
“We did a two-year, post-graduate survey and got some wonderful insights,” he says. “Our [programs in] entrepreneurial studies and gender studies came out of that.”
 

Delaware College of Art and Design

A New Look and Attitude for a City
 
As Wilmington strengthens its core, Delaware College of Art and Design helps to shape its aesthetic. Housed in a beautiful art deco building at Sixth and Market streets, the 13-year-old school has been grooming a new generation of artists and dispatching them to enliven the look of the city.
 
“I feel that our students are a great asset to Wilmington,” says DCAD president Stuart Baron, a board member of Main Street Wilmington. “It’s a remarkable opportunity for an arts school to be part of a downtown revitalization plan.”
 
Along with neighbors such as Delaware History Museum (in the former Woolworth store) and the long-languishing Queen Theater, which will soon get new life as a venue for World Café Live, DCAD is center stage in the downtown revival. Within a building of striking lines, golden Aztec-styled elevator doors evoke 1950s boardrooms, and student displays adorn corridor walls on upper floors. At ground level, the Toni and Stuart B. Young Gallery exhibits student, faculty and outside work for public view.
 
Across Sixth Street stands the college-owned Saville Apartments, formerly Wilmington’s iconic Mullin’s Department Store, which was converted to residences in the 1980s. Many of DCAD’s 220 full-time students bunk at The Saville. The Copeland Student Center occupies the first floor.
 
Baron gives high marks to his instructors for both professional achievement and motivational teaching. “Students benefit from the spirit of discovery,” he says. More than 80 percent of students who earn the two-year associate’s degree of fine arts from DCAD go on to pursue a bachelor’s degree, most of them at Pratt Institute (Brooklyn and Manhattan) and Corcoran College of Art + Design (Washington, D.C.), two prestigious schools that came to town in 1996 and helped launch DCAD. 
 
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Baron says that DCAD grads are “exceedingly well-prepared” when they venture to the big cities. He cites those who go on to master’s degrees or simply take immediate jobs related to one of the six DCAD majors: animation, fine arts, graphic design, illustration, interior design and photography. Another 250 students take advantage of the school’s continuing education program, and interested high-schoolers (and younger) get a leg up with DCAD’s one-week pre-college art studio program.
 
Nationally accredited, DCAD has a small endowment that it bolsters with
annual fundraising appeals. It is trying to increase its enrollment and budget, and Baron sees additional majors in cartooning and ceramics in the future. “Curriculum is a living thing,” he says. As is art.
 

Wesley College

The Value of Service
 
Freshmen at Wesley, the oldest private college in Delaware, attend a lecture series that stresses, among other concepts, self-improvement and the value of volunteerism. The message is clear: Students should not live by books alone. “We want to be institutionally involved in students’ lives,” says president William Johnston.
 
If that sounds a touch Big Brotherish, be assured that Johnston is referring to student participation in community service programs on campus, what he calls “service learning” and a “holistic educational experience.” At Wesley, creating students who are outstanding citizens is a primary goal.
 
This perspective stems from the school’s covenant relationship with the United Methodist Church (theologian John Wesley was the movement’s founder), which emphasizes social responsibility and affords, says Johnston, a “philosophical-spiritual journey while at college.”
 
But the president is the first to point out that Wesley is about much more than introspection and good deeds. After all, the Wolverines’ football team went to the NCAA Division III semifinals in December, and 17 other men’s and women’s teams claim a substantial share of student bodies. In addition, intramural sports is big, and various clubs and organizations punctuate Wesley’s 50-acre Dover campus, which is graced with columned buildings and stately Victorians within shouting distance of the historic district. Established in 1873 as the prep school Wilmington Conference Academy, the school took the name Wesley in 1918, but didn’t offer bachelor’s degrees until six decades later.
 
About 1,600 students attend classes full time in Dover. A thousand of them live on-campus, in one of a half-dozen residence halls or the Honors House, which rewards high achievers. Wesley’s New Castle campus, geared toward working adults, serves another 400 students, and the school offers general education courses for military personnel at Dover Air Force Base.
 
The three largest majors at Wesley are business, education and nursing, which parallels the three master’s degree programs that have been in place since the 1990s. A number of Wesley students are first-generation college, and 22 percent are from minority groups. Annual tuition is under $19,000, while room and board combined ranges in the low five figures. A variety of financial aid packages help pay the freight. 
 
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“We pride ourselves in being a residential campus,” says Johnston. “We continue to become a greater part of the fabric of Dover.”
 
One example is Wesley’s alliance with the refurbished Schwartz Center, a performing arts venue in which the school holds a one-third stake. The center, which hosts the likes of celebrated dance troupe Philadanco, also stages performances by Wesley students, along with college lectures and winter commencement exercises.
 
Though Wesley draws some students from outside the Mid-Atlantic—even from outside the country—and offers opportunities to study abroad, it seeks greater recognition beyond Delaware.
 
“One of our goals is to become more regionally and nationally known,” says Johnston. “We could gradually add, say, a thousand students and not lose our personality.”
 

Wilmington University

The Evolution Continues
 
Back in the days when U.S. 13 was the way to Washington, D.C., a motel and gas station near Del. 141 in New Castle provided a pit stop for motorists. But by 1968, travel plans had changed, and the hostelry and filling station were in receivership, so a new school set up shop on the premises. Wilmington College’s charter class of 194 lived and learned in the converted motel.
 
Since then, the school has really stepped on the gas. Today’s Wilmington University boasts 10 locations and 14,000 students. What began as a liberal arts program for traditional college-age students later shifted focus to working adults. It now combines the two groups on a near 50-50 basis. Since 90 percent of Wilmington University students work, many traditional students attend night classes, where they mix well with seasoned members of the workforce. All benefit from the wisdom of age and the energy of youth.
 
“Both say they learn from each other,” says president Jack Varsalona, and both groups share a career focus. “We want them to be employed, so we look for where the jobs are and build degrees around them.”
 
Hence Wilmington’s strength in education, criminal justice, business and nursing—a few of the array of undergraduate and graduate programs. The newest member of the curriculum may be game design and development, a nod to the exploding market of video-game technology for recreational use and beyond.
 
The university’s growth has been similarly robust. The Dupont Highway location in New Castle has morphed from motel to a full-service main campus that has expanded into the nearby New Castle Corporate Commons, where Wilson Graduate Center handles most of WU’s advanced degrees. New locations in Claymont and Middletown cut commuting time for out-of-state and working students. Wilmington University Dover serves central Delaware, and the school’s berth at Dover Air Force Base is open to civilians as well as military personnel. The Georgetown campus attracts a large percentage of DelTech students who go on to higher education. A Rehoboth Beach site offers enrichment courses, as well as basic college coursework.
 
At AstraZeneca locations in Wilmington, employees can enroll in several degree programs. Across the Delaware River, Burlington and Cumberland community colleges have joined Salem Community College in providing select degree-completion programs. And for those who prefer the comforts of home, computer-based distance-learning tests some 2,000 students.
 
The commuter school’s low annual tuition of $7,200 has the working student in mind. “We know they have to be able to afford [college],” says Varsalona, “so we keep the dollars low through eliminating frills—and with high productivity.”

 

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