Commonwealth University: Transforming Education with Students at the Center



By Council of Trustees Chair John Wetzel

It is no secret that higher education institutions across our state and across the country stand at a crossroads. With costs rising, the number of college-bound students declining, and many students and families questioning the value of a college degree, colleges and universities bear the responsibility of remaining relevant and demonstrating the inherent value in earning a degree.

In my own college experience, it took time and mentorship for me to fully appreciate how a degree would forever alter the trajectory of my life. My professors and coaches at Bloomsburg University saw something in me that, at the time, I did not recognize in myself. Their influence led me to take advantage of the academic opportunities available at Bloomsburg.

Though my circumstances caused me to take much more time than most students, I graduated and went on to a fulfilling and meaningful career that spanned more than thirty years in the criminal justice system. In 2021, I retired as Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections, having served for more than ten years in that role.

I have spent much of my life working with people who came into the criminal justice system, knowing that if they had received access to the same opportunities I had, they could likely have occupied the same seats I have. That experience led me to remain involved in both leadership and mentorship positions with Bloomsburg, and now Commonwealth University, where I serve as Chair of the Council of Trustees.

My story echoes those of many Commonwealth University students. Knowing that is why I am so encouraged by the work taking place at Commonwealth University to give students and families an option for an affordable, high-quality education that offers students the skills they need to find success in today's workplace. Our mission of providing access to an affordable and transformative education is vital to the future of higher education in our state.

Since the formation of Commonwealth University 18 months ago, our faculty and staff have worked tirelessly with employer partners to match the needs of the workforce with the CU educational opportunities. That dedicated team has completed a total revision of our academic curriculum and program offerings to include career and professional experiences that give graduates the technical and professional skills necessary to make a lasting impact on their families, communities, and professions.

In only our second year, Commonwealth University began with a 10% increase in first-year undergraduate enrollment and a 26.5% increase in graduate enrollment. The work we have done to strengthen relationships with our local school districts, including a robust merit scholarship program, has led to exceeding enrollment goals in Bloomsburg by 120%, in Lock Haven by 115%, and in Mansfield by 129%. Our early success serves to continue the centuries-long tradition of preparing our state's workforce and transforming the lives of Pennsylvania's students in the process.

Another significant achievement is the progress being made by our most vulnerable students. The retention performance gap of our underrepresented minority students shrank from 12.3% to 6.8% during our initial year as an integrated university, meaning that minority student retention compares more favorably to the rates of majority students. The retention performance gap between our Pell Grant-eligible students and their non-Pell eligible counterparts also shrank from 6.7% to 5.1%. Clearly large numbers of our minority students are finding the resources they need to succeed in their early experience at CU and are returning to continue their educational journey on our campuses.

The results we're seeing at Commonwealth University speak to the passion and dedication of our people-the talented faculty that prepare students academically and the committed staff that support them throughout their education journey.

If you have young people in your life, even if they don't currently see college in their future, I ask you to encourage them to explore Commonwealth University. Learn about the ways we're developing new state-of-the-art academic programs that are readying our students for exciting career fields while building upon the initiatives that set our students apart.

As a champion for the power of higher education and a decades-long witness to the heartbreak of lost opportunities, I believe all students deserve a chance to change the trajectory of their lives. Education is, without question, the most powerful and effective way to make that happen.