Treating Education as an Economic Driver
Six Westchester college presidents share their insights on the state of the local higher-ed sector.
Left to right: Dr. Belinda S. Miles; Westchester Community College, Michael E. Geisler, PhD; Manhattanville College, Marvin Krislov; Pace University, Thomas J. Schwarz; Purchase College, Dorothy A. Escribano, PhD; The College of New Rochelle, Jon C. Strauss, PhD; Iona College
Photography by Ken Gabrielsen
914INC.: Higher education is one of the largest sectors of the economy here in Westchester, and collectively your schools comprise a significant segment of that sector. How aware are you of your institutions’ impact on the local economy, and what do you do to ensure that your institutions act as good corporate citizens?
Jon C. Strauss, PhD: I’ve been particularly impressed with the amazing impact that Iona has on the community in New Rochelle. The school has economically revitalized a whole section of the city, purposefully, and continues that not only in our building and support programs but in outreach to the community in a variety of ways. For example, our meal plan — it’s not a typical, all-you-can-eat for a fixed price, but it’s a points plan, where students get to spend about half the money on local restaurants. We have some 20 restaurants and little stores in the vicinity, where our students spend their money each year. We are a major factor in making our neighborhoods the viable places they are. That’s enormously gratifying. I think it’s important to the students, too; they know it and are proud of it.
Thomas J. Schwarz: We are a state institution plunked down in a very wealthy area, so it’s a little different for us. In our case, while we obviously have an impact on the area, and we do buy locally when we can, we’re obligated under various state procurement rules and sometimes end up not buying locally. But we serve the role of a cultural institution, with our museum and our performing arts center, as well as almost a local park, where people are running and biking and walking their dogs. Also, we do have a lot of seniors who audit courses, and now we’re building what we call a senior-learning community on our campus. We hope to be a place where education will continue for people in residence in that senior-learning community.
“We try to place students in internships here in Westchester when we can. Many of them get hired and they tend to stay in the area, which we think is very important.”
—Dorothy A. Escribano, PhD, Interim President, The College of New Rochelle
Dorothy A. Escribano, PhD: We were founded by the Ursulines, and their motto is serviam. [Latin for “I will serve.”] About 60 to 70 percent of our programs have some service component to them, and our students often start [a service] for the course but get committed and continue in the food bank or church, et cetera, which is a help to the community. Then the second piece is the internships. We try to place students in internships here in Westchester when we can. Many of them get hired and they tend to stay in the area, which we think is very important.
Michael E. Geisler, PhD: We also contribute to the economy. I am on the board of the Business Council of Westchester, and we have ongoing conversations about the needs for an educated workforce for the 21st century. I think [these conversations] can be very productive for the business community. We are in the process of setting up a group of presidents and business owners who talk about what kinds of qualifications area businesses want, because they have a hard time getting the kinds of qualified applicants that they need. And then also thinking about what kinds of attitudinal shifts are needed [among students], because some employers are having issues with the students’ levels of preparation in terms of their mindset for employment. Millenials, in particular, [don’t always have] realistic expectations about the level of engagement with the job, vacation times, et cetera.
Marvin Krislov: Pace is the largest university in Westchester County, and we are the county’s 13th-largest employer. And in addition to the Pleasantville campus, we also have in White Plains the only law school between New York City and Albany. We generate a lot of jobs — about 1,300 jobs, according to our last numbers — and roughly $30 million in salaries and purchases. So we have a real, direct economic impact in both White Plains and Pleasantville, and the entire county. We also have a service-learning requirement, so every undergraduate has to complete a service-learning class, which has a community impact; we do a lot of work with cybersecurity as well. And with our College of Health Professions, we have strong placement in a lot of the area hospitals and healthcare facilities, so that’s an impact for jobs and volunteer work.
“We have an incubator now, our new GaelVentures facility, which will help our students, of course, but also engage entrepreneurs in the community. This is a game changer, and the exciting part is that it’s not just us at Iona; it’s engaging everybody.”
—Jon C. Strauss, PhD, Acting President, Iona College
Dr. Belinda S. Miles: We have the benefit of having a main campus in Valhalla, as well as five major extension sites in Ossining, Peekskill, Mount Vernon, Yonkers, and White Plains. So our impact is not just localized: It’s throughout the county and growing. We have many partnerships with local schools or other entities where we rent space and offer courses, [which is part of our initiative] to meet students where they are. More than two-thirds of our graduates live and work in Westchester after they complete their education with us. About 60 percent of our graduates have transfer degrees and have in mind going to a four-year college or university. But the other 40 percent are looking to get into the workforce right away, so we do train EMT-certified individuals, RNs, respiratory therapists, as well as IT and cybersecurity students. That economic impact is something that is attractive to businesses exploring whether they’d like to come to the area. I sit with Michael [Geisler] on the Business Council of Westchester board, so we’re also always talking about how to attract new institutions for economic development to the region, and we’re part of that solution.
Schwarz: I should also point out that we have various programs in a lot of the high schools. We also have a site in Yonkers, and we collaborate with local organizations in Yonkers to provide various job training, as well as arts [programs]. And we’re now talking to one of the other cities about a similar program.
914INC.: How does being located in Westchester help you, from a business perspective, and how is it a challenge to operate in this environment?
Geisler: The biggest advantage is that you have a very educated workforce available academically. Even at the adjunct level, we get incredible people who come in — and they’re not coming for the salaries we are paying them! — because they love to teach a course in a field that they have expertise in but can’t practice as much because of their day jobs. The biggest challenge is housing. Bringing in faculty and staff and finding housing for them. We are lucky enough that we have a significant number of apartments on campus, so we have some faculty/staff housing, but we can’t provide it for everybody. And affordable living space that is closer than an hour-and-a-half commute is a major challenge.
Miles: I would agree that the incredible resource of talent that’s available to us, both instructionally and for other professional roles, is a strength. There’s also population growth in Westchester County, so there are more people available who are interested in a local, viable college education. Transportation is an interesting challenge for us at the community college. All of our students are commuter students [but not all have cars], so while you can get a bus from Yonkers to Valhalla or to Ossining, we do have facilities in some of the further portions of the county where it’s hard to get bus service. So the ability for our students to move throughout the county fluidly is an issue. We have relationships with Bee-Line [bus service], and we have an ongoing transportation committee that’s looking at how to improve [the transportation situation], so we can make the student experience more positive and feasible.
“We serve the role of a cultural institution, with our museum and our performing arts center, as well as almost a local park...”
—Thomas J. Schwarz, President, Purchase College
Escribano: We have a little bit of an advantage because transportation is not an issue in New Rochelle. Everything comes into New Rochelle, which is great because a lot of our students come in from New York City and down from other parts of Westchester. One challenge is that there are a lot of colleges here in a small region. And I think we’ve all started moving on this, but we need to focus more on working together and putting the student first. There are often times that for a student, we will say you need to go to Westchester Community College first, but when you come to us, we’ll see what we can do for you. So I think working with our colleagues is really important; we need to find the time, like we did today, to get out and have these conversations.
Strauss: Yes, as collaborative as we all are, we’re also in fierce competition for many of the same students — as well as for staff and faculty... For all the reasons that have been spoken of, we very much value being a part of Westchester County. The talent pool is impressive, to say nothing of the wealth here, which I think we all try to tap, for the right purposes. But one of the big challenges we find is cost. Things simply cost more in Westchester County. There are higher expectations for salaries, and we have for-profit competitors [for those job applicants] who don’t have quite the same constraints as we do. And of course we share the housing concern that Michael [Geisler] mentioned. At Iona, our faculty commute amazing distances, and I’m not sure that’s sustainable indefinitely. We as a county have to do something to deal with housing for working individuals, like the people whom we employ.
Schwarz: I think if Westchester cities decided to build housing for faculty who were working at one of the Westchester colleges, it could be an almost instant economic-development program. You’d have highly educated faculty members who would then be local homebuyers. The colleges here have, as a group, such a large economic impact, so recognition that we all have this housing problem, and building academic housing that we could all make use of, I think would be a home run for everybody.
Krislov: One of the great advantages of being in this area is that the location is so attractive for staff and students. The proximity to New York City and the Lower Hudson Valley is a really powerful combination. On the challenges side, we just had to put $100 million into a major renovation of our Pleasantville campus. It’s really beautiful and getting a lot of excitement. But we still don’t have enough housing for students sometimes, and it’s really a challenge. I would also echo the comments about transportation: There really isn’t much mass transit, which means that everyone has to have cars or access to cars, and that creates pressure on parking. So it would be nice if there were a little more investment in mass-transit opportunities.
“The incredible resource of talent that’s available to us, both instructionally and for other professional roles, is a strength. There’s also population growth in Westchester County, so there are more people available who are interested in a local, viable college education.”
—Dr. Belinda S. Miles, President, Westchester Community College
914INC.: Are you seeing any trends in terms of what majors and jobs students are most interested in, or from which majors companies are most interested in finding skilled graduates?
Miles: We just conducted a study, along with the New Skills at Work organization and funded by JP Morgan Chase Foundation, to examine middle skills in the Lower Hudson Valley. Middle skills are those fields that require more than a high school diploma but not a baccalaureate in order to get into an entry-level position that has a viable, family-sustaining wage pathway. There are some fields in IT, healthcare technologies, and culinary arts that were the three emergent fields in Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam Counties [according to the study]. So it’s been very exciting for us to share that information with our students and to be responsive to our communities. There’s also an interesting challenge in helping students to understand some of the career opportunities that are available to them. We were fortunate to receive a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a photonics program and to increase interest in STEM fields [among our female students]. That’s a big conversation to have with the women and girls that we have at the college. I go through the labs and there is not always the balance that we think could be optimal. And so we have to explain these opportunities and help people to see what the progression and the pathway is and that they can get started in terms of these emerging trends.
Schwarz: We have a very successful program with seven community colleges, including WCC, with respect to women and minorities in the sciences, and obviously it’s a very relevant program for Westchester, which has a significant biotech presence. We have been working with some of the local companies to find out what they want [from potential employees coming out of college], and we’re now looking at that program to see how we can move it back to even earlier and bring [high school] students onto our campus during the summer, before they are ready for college.
Geisler: Along with our traditional strengths in education, and the interest in psychology, which is still very strong, we’ve seen a shift toward communications and media, particularly digital-media production. We had a group of students who created their own video-and-communications club, which was sufficiently professional that we actually hired them to do some of our communications work. There’s also a strong interest in gaming. In fact, two of our professors team-taught a course based on an actual real problem provided by a local business on game design. So that is an area to which we’ll probably pay a lot of attention in the future.
Escribano: Healthcare is our largest school, so that’s still obviously popular with students. But after healthcare, our largest freshman class comes into biology. Now we were, until a couple years ago, a women’s college, so we’re fortunate that we have a number of women coming into biology; we’re trying to get more to go into math, but we’re not there yet. Then I would say interdisciplinary is increasingly popular; most of our students now are not doing a single major. They’re looking at maybe forensic studies, so it can cross over. Or international studies, where they might choose political science or history to focus on. Also, one of our signature programs is art. Going into the graduate degrees, we have art and art therapy, and that, for us, is a very popular program, for which we have a waiting list.
“We have a significant number of [faculty] apartments on campus… but can’t provide it for everybody. And affordable living space that is closer than an hour-and-a-half commute is a major challenge.”
—Michael E. Geisler, PhD, President, Manhattanville College
Krislov: We still have very strong populations in arts and sciences and business, which are the two biggest schools we have. But we’ve seen a lot of growth in the College of Health Professions and the allied-health field. Also, Pace University, through the efforts of the Seidenberg School, was designated a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. Cybersecurity is clearly a growing area, so that’s certainly a growth area for us. But we do have a pretty well-balanced enrollment among the different areas.
914INC.: How much does the local business community, and especially its needs in terms of labor force, impact and influence the decisions you make regarding courses and programs you offer at your schools?
Schwarz: We do this through our school of continuing education, where we have various certificate programs that we think are important for the Westchester community.
Escribano: Our faculty have been very involved in developing new programs. The faculty will reach out to employers [or relevant members of the business community or other key stakeholders], and then we work with our strategic planning staff to see how we could possibly phase in these ideas. We will also talk to our colleagues [at other colleges] about new programs. Take our School of Nursing, for instance: We are all interested in the new healthcare professions that are gaining ground, and we want to make sure [before we implement a new program] that Iona is not already doing it right down the block.
“We generate a lot of jobs — about 1,300 jobs, according to our last numbers — and roughly $30 million in salaries and purchases. So we have a real, direct economic impact in both White Plains and Pleasantville, and the entire county.”
—Marvin Krislov, President, Pace University
Krislov: We are in active dialogue with the county employers, from healthcare to computer science. We just held a conference on cybersecurity that we cosponsored with the BCW, and we were introducing our students to the employers and so forth. We also have a business school that has both undergrad and graduate programs, so it’s very much on our minds. We’ve just opened up a PhD in Nursing program; there’s a real need [in that field]. We also have active placement efforts to match students to potential employers. Also, we have a lot of instances, particularly in the health professions, where students need to have a practicum experience as part of their education. So there is ongoing dialogue about opportunities so that we can help place our students, and, of course, this is a win-win for both the employer and the university.
Strauss: We’re doing one thing, which we just started, that I think is going to have a truly major impact, because in addition to reaching out to potential employers and engaging them with students, we’re in the business now of creating our own employers. With the support of a $15 million gift, we now have the Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation that will touch the lives of every one of our students, some of whom may hopefully go out and found the next Google or Hewlett-Packard. But everybody can profit from being more alert to the challenges of design and innovation and, of course, entrepreneurship, if you carry it to the business side of things. We have an incubator now, our new GaelVentures facility, which will help our students, of course, but also engage entrepreneurs in the community. This is a game changer, and the exciting part of it is that it’s not just us at Iona; it’s engaging everybody.