Jack Varsalona wants to make earning a college
degree even more convenient for working adults.
Photograph by Christian Kaye
When Jack Varsalona became president of Wilmington College in July 2005, he had big shoes to fill. His predecessor, Dr. Audrey Doberstein, was practically canonized after transforming a school of 400 students who began meeting at the Tours Inn Motor Court in New Castle in 1968 into a community of 11,000 students and campuses across the state.
Varsalona worked with Doberstein for 17 years–they shared an office for nine—so he knew her strengths. He also knew the college needed to advance technologically and increase business partnerships.
Varsalona delivered online courses and offered programs at corporations to keep pace with the University of Delaware and Drexel University. He’s also quashing the notion that because enrollment is open, Wilmington’s offerings and reputation are inferior to other four-year colleges.
Varsalona’s contributions are most noteworthy in terms of economic impact. According to Judy McKinney-Cherry, the director of the Delaware Economic Development Office, Wilmington College’s direct contribution made up 11.3 percent of the entire educational sector’s $328 million contribution to the gross domestic product.
“The data tells me there’s been a concerted effort on Jack’s part to build the bachelor’s program, master’s, and to enhance the doctoral offerings, many aimed at business, which is where Delaware excels,” McKinney-Cherry says. “He’s been successful in taking what Wilmington College had and accelerating its growth in the right areas.”
Delaware Today sat with Varsalona at Polidoro Italian Grill in New Castle. Before he could take his first bite of eggplant Sicilian, we got the most obvious question out of the way:
DT: Wilmington College recently became Wilmington University. What’s in a name?
JV: The university status better reflects the academic vigor that our students go through. It better represents the size and the scope of the institution. We have eight sites in two states. We have two doctoral degrees and close to 25 master’s degrees.
DT: But you’ve offered your MBA since 1977, your bachelor’s since 1975 and a doctorate since 1990. What took so long?
JV: We went through a number of national accreditations. About two years ago, we began a study to determine if that was the case, and it came out 100 percent that we were a university. In addition, the Carnegie Foundation [for the Advancement of Teaching], which designates the differences between colleges and universities, seconded it.
DT: Yet critics call the whole thing nothing more than a marketing campaign.
JV:We have a growth rate that’s so high that my biggest problem is classroom space and parking spots. This is no marketing campaign.
DT: WU appears focused on older, working students rather than those traditionally aged. Is that a fair assessment?
JV: The ratio of adult to younger students under 24 is 60-40, of our 11,200 students. But about five years ago, we noticed the number of traditional-age students were increasing. We’ll be examining their needs more thoroughly. But throughout our existence, we have always been known for student service.
DT: Shouldn’t that be the goal of every educational institution?
JV: It should be. And most schools are striving for it now. We’ve always had it. The coursework here is tough, but everything else is easy: advising, registering, buying books, locations. An adult who wants to work, raise a family and go to school cannot be bothered with coming in at inappropriate times to register. We even make it easier for parents of young ones to fill out financial aid forms.
DT: Sounds like a business rather than a school.
JV: We’re in the business of education.
DT: It brings to mind a book called “The Entrepreneurial College President,” by James Fisher and James Koch, which suggests that today’s most successful college presidents are primarily defined by entrepreneurial attitudes and behavior. Do you agree?
JV: Yes. We’re a nonprofit organization. But we receive no federal or state funds to speak of. We rely on tuition. Therefore we have to keep tuition affordable.
DT: Yet some people still have that notion of WU as the old motel.
JV: It’s more of a concept among people who were living in Delaware back then, because the new people coming in have no idea and view us as extremely successful.
DT: Speaking of Delaware, why did you branch out in New Jersey at Burlington and Cumberland community colleges?
JV: We have a history in Delaware of educating community college graduates. We have agreements with those colleges that their first two years are accepted and we finish the third and fourth year.
Probably 70 percent of DelTech graduates come to us. We’ve had the same arrangement with Salem Community College for about 25 years because it’s 11 miles away. So the other community college presidents in New Jersey were looking for someone like us, who had an excellent track record in graduating their students.
But there’s the kicker: We just don’t accept them. We have excellent retention and graduation rates. Burlington and Cumberland were geographically located where it would be most convenient for all community college grads to reach all of central and southern New Jersey. We’ve hardly advertised, and we have over 100 students in New Jersey already. (WU started the program in September.)
DT: But there are several colleges in New Jersey.
JV: New Jersey is the highest state in the country that exports high school graduates. They have a number of institutions, but there was certainly room for someone like us, an entrepreneurial nonprofit university.
DT: Talk about your Middletown High School initiative, where you offer high schoolers 100- and 200-level classes at more than a 50 percent reduction in tuition.
JV: I was looking for ways for adult students who lived in Middletown or Bear to have a better commute than going to our Dover and New Castle campuses. So we offered courses for them at night at Middletown High, and it became very successful. But then, in talking with the superintendent, we decided, if there were students that wanted college credit before they graduated, we’d offer it during the day. We discounted the rate simply because it’s a public service.
DT: And because they might become WU students?
JV: We’d love to have them.
DT: You’ve also been successful in attracting corporate clients by creating five-week fusion classes at Chrysler and AstraZeneca. Why bother? Corporate students are already coming to you.
JV: They do, but the future is taking higher ed to the workplace. With technology, it’s easy to export classes anywhere. It started because we went to those institutions, they evaluated us, and they said we offered what their employers needed. We were in Chrysler 10 years ago, until the students went through and no more wanted it. We went back with the MBA recently. We were at the Wilmington police force, too. At the Claymont Community Center, we’re offering an MBA this year and a bachelor’s next year.
DT: Explain open enrollment.
JV: Open enrollment does not mean open graduation. You don’t work, you don’t graduate. Class sizes have to stay small. Ours is 17 on average, and we won’t go higher. Math and writing, it’s probably 10. You have to have free tutoring. And you have to watch your students to make sure they’re learning. Our students tend to be highly motivated. About 95 percent of them are working.
What we’re teaching is what the community needs, but we also have national accreditations in every field. That means teams from all over the country come in and evaluate what we’re teaching and how effectively we’re delivering it. Finally, we have an outcomes assessment program where our graduates are analyzed according to graduation competencies, which encompass not only their skills, but also their ability to communicate them.
DT: Considering the amount of construction going on, can we safely assume that WU will always be brick and mortar, and won’t ever operate solely online?
JV: We have three bachelor’s degrees now which you can get four different ways. One is online. Next year we’ll develop six or seven bachelor’s and graduate degrees online. Our buildings are here to stay.
DT: Speaking of great foundations, how do you move away from Dr. Doberstein’s shadow and enjoy your limelight?
JV: I hope to achieve more growth. We’ll expand online, increase our accelerated programs and corporate partners. My goal is simple: to make it more convenient for working adults to get a degree. And in turn, that will lead to economic development in this state. (DEDO reports that for every job created at WU, 1.4 will be created in the economy.)
DT: We can’t forget the Wilmington Wildcats. With a logo change comes a uniform change. Seemed to help the San Antonio Spurs.
JV: I think we’re turning the C sideways. It’ll seem more like a U. Can’t hurt.