This year at Rowan: Biggest, most diverse freshman class

This year at Rowan: Biggest, most diverse freshman class

By Jonathan Lai, Inquirer Staff Writer

As classes began this week, Rowan University welcomed its largest, most diverse freshman class, with the highest-ever grades and test scores.

Thanks to 2,240 freshmen, total enrollment has grown to about 15,000 students this year, up from 11,000 five years ago.

The boom comes in an era of expansion for Rowan, due in part to an aggressive 10-year plan to double enrollment, quadruple research funding, and increase the annual operating budget 1.5 times.

Rowan opened a medical school in Camden in 2012, then absorbed a medical school from the now-defunct University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. To accommodate the growth, Rowan now has more faculty members than ever.

"I've been here 20 years, and the changes I've seen are amazing, but just in the last couple years, they've snowballed," said Al Betts, Rowan director of admissions. "For this fall, we've really pulled off an amazing feat, given the times we're in, that we brought in the largest class in our history, the most diverse class in our history, and the strongest academic profile of any class in our history."

The admissions office has doubled its staff in response to the deluge of applications, which last year grew 12 percent for freshmen and 11 percent for transfer students. Admissions officers, who once stayed close to the university, now travel north to Connecticut, south to Washington, and west to Pittsburgh.

A series of Web campaigns directly markets the school to hundreds of thousands of high school students at a time, academic scholarships have increased by $8 million, and the number of open houses has grown to eight.

Admissions officers now visit twice as many high schools and college fairs as they did just a few years ago, Betts said.

Unlike a lot of universities that try to increase their application numbers to become more "selective," Rowan is trying to increase actual enrollment. The school still accepts most applicants, at a percentage that rose this year to 65 percent.

The average Rowan freshman SAT score rose slightly this year, to 1,203 from 1,200 on a 1,600 scale. For many students applying this fall, submitting test scores will be optional for Rowan.

"When you bring in 500 more students and the score goes up a little bit," Betts said, "you're picking more apples, but you're picking good apples."

Of the various superlatives attributed to this freshman class, university president Ali A. Houshmand said he was most proud of its racial diversity.

Application, acceptance, and enrollment numbers grew for black and Hispanic students this year: This class has 50.8 percent more Hispanic freshmen than last year, increasing to 276 from 183, and 48.8 percent more black freshmen, increasing to 256 from 172.

Black students make up 11.4 percent of the freshman class, and Hispanic students make up 12.3 percent.

"If you want to be, in today's world, a successful university . . . then you have to reflect the population in which you are located," said Houshmand, an Iranian immigrant who came to the United States after earning degrees from schools in the United Kingdom. "The campus is increasingly looking like the population of the community."

About 18 percent of New Jerseyans identify as Hispanic or Latino and 14 percent as black or African American, according to recent estimates by the Census Bureau. In Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties, about 18 percent of residents identify as black, and 10 percent as Hispanic.

"If this is the mix of the population, then the mix of the university should reflect that," Houshmand said. "I don't want this university to be exclusive; I want it to be the most inclusive."

From fall 2010 to fall 2013, white students decreased as a percentage of the total population, dropping to 69.96 percent from 77.40 percent.

"It's a good thing, you get to associate with all other diverse people that still share something in common," said Maria Reza, a freshman from North Camden. "I like the fact that even though we're all different, we all came together."

Reza, 17, was already familiar with Rowan when she decided to apply, thanks to her sister a year ahead of her. The first in their family to go to college, Reza and her sister are in the Educational Opportunity Fund program, a state financial aid and student support program aimed at assisting students from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

That support can help sway a student, such as Emely Perez, 19, from North Bergen, Hudson County.

On a visit to Rowan, Perez learned she was eligible for scholarship money she hadn't expected - "out of nowhere," she said. Perez, who is also in the Educational Opportunity Fund program and a first-generation college student, agreed with Reza that the college's increasing its diversity would positively affect their experience.

Those numbers should increase as the university grows, administrators predicted, with Houshmand hoping to see about 13 percent of students identify as black and 13 percent identify as Hispanic.

"It looks like the beauty of America," he said.

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Date Published: Tuesday, September 9, 2014 - 10:15