There are signs of improvement at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU) in Danbury these days. Not just in physical terms — represented by a multimillion-dollar renovation of its academic Higgins Hall now underway and a new campus police station that opened last year — but also in enrollment, a new branding initiative and, according to WCSU President John Clark, the overall atmosphere.
“I look at what the university does for its students and the state and in both cases, we’re doing very well,” he said. “For students who want to become nurses, accountants, officers of the law or medical professionals, WCSU offers them a top education at an affordable price. And we are more engaged with our local communities than ever before, working with institutions and businesses to improve the cities and towns.”
Following eight consecutive years of eroding enrollment, WestConn welcomed 919 freshmen last fall, a 10.5 percent increase over the fall of 2017. That was driven in part by the school’s successful outreach to students in New York and New Jersey, who under a program rolled out a few years ago by the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities system, to which WestConn belongs, can pay in-state tuition rates.
“We will always give preference to Connecticut residents,” Clark said, “but at the same time, Connecticut’s high school population is declining and that trend is expected to continue for nearly a decade. We expect next fall to show strong numbers as well.”
The school had fewer than 200 students from New York and New Jersey three years ago, the president said, but “we now have about 600 students who see the value of a WCSU education that is still not far from their hometowns.” New York alone was the source of 344 students, a 30 percent increase over fall ’17.
Per semester, in-state tuition at the school is $5,429.50, while for nonresidents it is $11,683.50.
The school opened its $6.45 million, nearly 11,000-square-foot police station — almost five times the size of its previous facility — last May, and work is continuing on Higgins Hall, which Clark said “is being completely refreshed and reconfigured.”
In addition to improving the built-in-1949 Higgins roof, plumbing and mechanicals, plans call for WestConn’s math, communications and foreign language departments to relocate there.
“We’re replacing small, traditional classrooms with several auditorium-type classrooms that can serve a few students or larger groups, so we will have more flexibility,” Clark said of the project, which will end up at 85,000 square feet at a cost of about $34.5 million. “The original Higgins was dark and worn out. The new version, which will open in the fall, is open and bright.”
The school made news recently by renaming its Social Sciences Hall after Ebenezer Bassett, the first African-American to graduate from what is now Central Connecticut State University and to serve as a U.S. diplomat. WestConn’s move marks the first time a public university in the state has named an academic building in honor of an African-American.
WCSU is in the process of naming its School of Visual and Performing Arts after African-American contralto Marian Anderson.
Asked about CSCU’s proposed 5 percent tuition increase for students at its four regional universities, Clark said: “When I became president in 2016, I said that we would ensure that finances would not stand in the way of any student enrolling or staying at WCSU and I am committed to continuing that. Most of our students work, many are paying their own way and money is an issue. We support our students with grants and loans so they can stay in school.
“The tuition increase will enable us to maintain and improve the high-quality education and service to our students. Like most of the region, we face the prospect of a declining high school population. That is why we started the New York/New Jersey initiative — to attract students into the state, instead of watching our population decline.”