September 9, 2020– By Elizabeth MacBride

Rowan University was an early leader in online learning. In 2010, the second-tier state school in New Jersey launched a division that now enrolls 12,000 students annually. Over the past 10 years, online learning has generated more than $128 million for the university by serving both adults returning to college and younger students with more than 55 course offerings in fields such as education, health administration, business, criminal justice and public relations.

headshot of Jeff Hand
Jeff Hand, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs, Rowan University (Photo courtesy Rowan Univ.)

We sat down with Jeff Hand, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs, to ask him for his thoughts about how online learning is likely to evolve as the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout continue.

Hand said once a higher-education institution goes online, it’s instantly up against every other online learning company or institution. As people retool for new and different jobs that may emerge after the pandemic, he said, the market is likely to change considerably. That shift to market responsiveness can be difficult for a higher education institution, he said — but Rowan is used to it. “We’re looking to morph along with those changes,” he said.

What has been the key to Rowan’s success so far?

We were founded as a teaching school. Pedagogy and curriculum is important in everything we do. As we had to move students online this spring, we had our quality standards already in place.

You’ve said one of the drivers for Rowan to start online learning was to keep costs low for non-traditional students. How low are they?

They’re about $460 per credit hour. We took out the fees that on-campus students pay for things like the Student Union and facilities fees. (Online students are allowed to use the Student Union, but they’re not charged). It’s about two-thirds the cost of in-state, on-campus tuition by credit hour.

How many New Jersey vs. out-of-state students are there online?

On campus, about 96% of our students are from New Jersey. Online, it’s 80%. You see, you’re competing with everyone. You have to be really good.

Given the financial pressures on students, families and the university itself are likely to face next year, will the pricing change?

We have committed to keeping tuition the same. We’re looking to expand student aid, to make it available to online students. We are also in discussions with financial technology companies, to offer students a way to finance their education by agreeing to pay back the cost of tuition after they start working.

Rowan would essentially extend them credit while they’re taking classes, and get paid later?

Yes.

modern school building on Rowan University campus
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September 3, 2020 – By Elizabeth MacBride

At the South Jersey Technology Park, a garden plot is being grown with some of the tastiest (and hottest) varieties of peppers, from long hots and beaver dams to ghost peppers and the scorpion butch.

The plot is tended by students at nearby Rowan University, which helped develop the Tech Park, and by Ali Houshmand, president of Rowan. Houshmand has been growing peppers and making his own special recipe of hot sauce for years. After the sauce became popular among family and friends, Houshmand decided to create a bottled version to sell as a fundraising tool for student scholarships. Asked by the university’s marketers to describe how it tastes, Houshmand said, “It’s nasty hot.”

The entrepreneurial venture, Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauce, makes three varieties: Ali’s Nasty, Nastylicious and Nastyvicious.

bottles of hot sauce with flames behind them
Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauces

Houshmand collaborated with the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton to get the hot sauces to market. They’re sold through the university’s website, for $10 a jar, along with swag like t-shirts and pint glasses.

case study cover of Rowan University: A Blue-Collar Soul
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The company has earned over $130,000 in revenue that has been used for emergency scholarships for students at Rowan University who experience an unexpected financial crisis or need. With other donations, the scholarship fund has disbursed more than $3 million in assistance since its founding in 2016.

More than 65% of all Rowan undergraduates receive need-based financial aid.

“I grew up in a poor family with nine brothers and sisters. My mother and father couldn’t read,” said Houshmand in an interview, who immigrated to England from Iran just before he went to college at the University of Essex. “I’ve been through a tough time.”

Houshmand said he is committed to giving students from working class families a first-rate education at Rowan. “Give me the kid from Camden with a single mother, the one whose roof leaks when it rains. The real honor and the real accomplishment is serving that kid,” he said.

The Technology Park is also home to a technology business incubator designed to support a broad range of startups, including those led by Rowan students. Most recently, two Rowan grads set up a company which designed a new kind of reusable flexible drinking straw. In the next few years, as the economy emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, entrepreneurship – both startups and an entrepreneurial mindset at institutions – will be crucial to recovery. Rowan has already frozen its tuition for next year and is seeking ways to reduce costs further for students. “We have to recognize that a lot of our families have gone through serious financial issues,” Houshmand said. “So how can I make this easier? Increase the need-based scholarships.”

One pepper at a time.

As COVID-19 moves through the United States, our divisions are cast into stark relief. We are separated by politics, geography, race and class. Against this backdrop, higher-education institutions can be their communities’ strongest anchors, keeping people moored to a space – physical or virtual – in which they interact and find what they share, instead of what divides them.

Next week, we launch “Impact In Action: Profiles of Higher Education,” a series exploring how three innovative higher-education institutions, Rowan University, Stillman College and University of Virginia-Wise, help produce impact-centered economic development in low-income and overlooked communities. “Everything boils down to resources,” Ali Houshmand, the president of Rowan University, told us. “Our first instinct is survival. Once we survive, we want to do better. How do we turn an institution that was reactive into one that is moving forward?”

“That, to me, is fundamental.”

These three profiles,

contain ideas and context for impact investors looking for trusted partners and high-leverage opportunities in the current fraught environment. They also offer higher education decision-makers insight into their peers’ actions to support low-income and overlooked communities while establishing new partnerships that help maintain institutions’ financial bottom lines. Collectively these post-pandemic stories underscore the three lessons featured in our Assets For Impact Insights Report.

“A ‘no’ for me does not burn a bridge. I look at it as just ‘not yet.’”  

“A ‘no’ for me does not burn a bridge. I look at it as just ‘not yet,’” said Shannon Blevins, Associate Vice Chancellor, Economic Development & Engagement at UVA-Wise. “Even if someone is late to engage with you on a project, make room for them at the table.”

This project began before the pandemic and, obviously, ended in a different place because of it. We set out early in the year to look at the role of higher-education institutions working in an area that has been a media lightning rod: Opportunity Zone development. Tax breaks passed in 2016, under the Trump Administration, have been used by wealthy developers to create projects that likely could have been financed in the private markets.

Yet, a deeper narrative has evolved in Opportunity Zones – one that is missed in the politicized media. Some communities are turning the legislation to its overt purpose to propel development in low-income communities. In many cases, higher education institutions are at the center of those positive developments. We are, for instance, seeing OZ projects evolve slowly, with the help of higher education institutions, in Baltimore, Kannapolis, North Carolina and Merced, California, as well as the highlands of Appalachia, the West Side of Tuscaloosa, Alabama and in Glassboro, New Jersey. The latter three are covered in this series of profiles, produced as a collaboration between Lumina Foundation and the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, with research and writing by Times of Entrepreneurship.

The Beeck Center was a leader in establishing the Guiding Principles and Reporting Framework for Opportunity Zones. These guiding principles include: community engagement, equity, transparency, measurement, and outcomes. Successfully investing requires careful attention to existing community assets, needs and priorities. Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available for all. Times of Entrepreneurship explores the way deep innovation can propel communities and individuals.  For all involved, a clear approach guided by a shared set of principles and implemented through a common and flexible framework is critical. 

At the Beeck Center our goal is to capitalize on the investment and work to-date to catalyze non-traditional partnerships within our network of influential investors, community intermediaries, government officials and foundations to help scale efforts and develop guiding principles, tactics and resources to empower businesses and organizations to align their assets to respond to the immediate community needs as well as to ensure an equitable economic recovery and sustained community investment post COVID-19.

As the pandemic evolved, we felt responsible to look deeper into higher education institutions’ role as anchors in low-income communities. The pandemic and the economic recession are devastating the most vulnerable people. Institutions cannot afford to put their own futures at risk. The role they play in those selfsame communities is too important.

Thus, the focus of our profiles became how these three leading institutions innovate to find paths forward that benefit the low-income communities that rely on them. These profiles are not about trade-offs. They’re about long-term strategy even in the face of short-term pressure. The long-term strategies usually rely on partnerships that benefit low-income communities and strengthen the institutions. The institutions’ well-being is tied deeply, then, to the health of low-income communities that are part of its world.

As Cynthia Warrick, the president of Stillman College, told us: “it’s hard to turn your back on poor children.” 

These institutions didn’t – and find themselves stronger because of those decisions.