LHU president sets optimistic tone

SARAH SMELTZ/THE EXPRESS LHU President Robert Pignatello.

LOCK HAVEN — Lock Haven University, the city and region have a vital dependence on each other, the new LHU president believes.

So much so that each should look to the other when conducting strategic planning, developing goals to improve lives, solve problems and build better communities.

That was among the many messages from Robert Pignatello during his speech to a sold-out crowd at the Clinton County Economic Partnership’s annual awards dinner at the university’s Durrwachter Alumni Conference Center on Wednesday night.

Pignatello is the 15th president of the university founded in 1870.

He formally joined the school this past July following a nationwide search.

Since then, Pignatello has been a busy man, spending a lot of time with students and faculty, talking with civic leaders and businesspeople, and hosting community and alumni gatherings.

“It has been a busy and productive four months since I landed here. We have received a great welcome. There are many already familiar faces in the audience. It is a good feeling. Amy and I feel very much at home here in Lock Haven,” he said.

Pignatello’s focus: Growing LHU’s prestige and brand and, in turn, its student enrollment at a time when there are fewer college students to go around.

He talked of opening a “school of nursing” here, along with doctoral programs (LHU is one of four state schools with no doctoral program) and a construction management pathway.

Fundraising – generating more private funds – is an integral part of his agenda, he said.

“We can’t do our jobs and execute our mission for our students without your support. We have to be more creative with how we meet this demand and close this workforce gap so we can help provide the residents of this area those skills they need to succeed in a changing workforce. Furthermore, as the local university, we have a responsibility and obligation not to just to be good neighbors, but to be actual strategic partners with you to work together and advance mutual goals,” he said.

By 2025, some 60 percent of Americans will need a post high school credential, he said, while In Pennsylvania, 63 percent of new jobs will require a college or trade school credential, he said. “Unfortunately, higher education has experienced an erosion of public trust. Confidence in it has fallen in recent years. Only 48 percent of the public responding to a recent poll said they have ‘a lot of confidence” in higher education.”

“We need to reverse this trend by proving our value to an increasingly skeptical public,” he declared.

Pignatello offered a litany of “financial drivers” that are challenging LHU and most of the 13 other, state-run universities:

– Population trends – fewer traditional students.

– Reduced tuition revenue due to enrollment declines.

– Rising personnel costs “that we do not receive any additional funding to cover.”

– Reduced state support that is “now only 27 percent of our budget.”

“State support for colleges in Pennsylvania is rock bottom,” he said. “Pennsylvania has been de-funding higher education for the last 10 years. State appropriations since 2000 have decreased $200 million or 31 percent. Tuition has gone up at the same time, and so have labor expenses. By far, students are the major investor in our operations (but) the tuition increase is not covering those cuts and increases.”

LHU, he said, has an especially important role to play because many of its students “are from working-class families.”

In fact, he said, 60 percent of LHU students receive financial aid through Pell grants and other aid, including loans.

As a result, “we have more students who graduate with debt” because their families tend to be in lower income brackets, he said.

But, he said, “Those who go to college earn more, they spend more, pay taxes, and rely less on government assistance. In fact, according to the College Board, if you attain a bachelor’s degree, you will earn 67 percent more than if you have only a high school diploma.”

A trend that makes it more challenging for schools like LHU with traditionally low tuition rates is that “private universities have reduced their tuition with their endowments to match us. We have greater need for scholarships and private support. We are allowing the competition to undercut us on price. That has to stop.”

Calling himself an “eternal optimist” and one who likes to take “informed risks,” Pignatello outlined his priorities.

“Change the culture and create optimism. Seek out the good – and there is plenty. Create pride and belief in ourselves. We have quality and excellence. We are hugely important to the region. The community relies on us. We cannot fail to reverse our fortunes,” he said.

“I just simply do not accept that we are helpless and cannot influence this.”

He was blunt about what needs to change, saying, “Our competitors are more aggressive and attracting students who should be coming here. We must come out of the shadow and rise to meet this challenge, raise our profile and visibility, and take nothing for granted. We will be mounting an advertising and marketing campaign (and) upgrading our website.”

In addition to growing its presence on social media, digitally, in local and regional press, he announced that LHU soon will have rolling billboards on the River Valley Transit buses traversing Lycoming and Clinton Counties, and one of the billboards was on display at the front of the room.

LHU must “push our brand and value – price, quality, distinctive experience, and location. We are the big campus alternate, small campus feel – big campus offerings, activities and a close-knit community.”

“We lose too many accepted students to other schools and to that other school up the road. We need more need-based scholarships and institutional aid to be even more affordable. Especially in our market where family incomes are less,” he added.

Retention of students is another key, he emphasized, noting that LHU’s second year retention rate is 70 percent, just under the state system average.

“We need to examine how we can improve the student experience. Here is where we really need the faculty – we are using predictive analytics (identifying students with vulnerabilities) to be in a better position to intervene when it will count to retain more students. This means early learning assessments, completion grants, debt forgiveness. We need to increase need-based aid to enable economically disadvantaged families to send their children to college. We must direct more support to students in financial need,” he explained.

“What is student success?” he asked.

“What does that mean? Outcomes? Jobs? Income? Graduate school? We need to be able to articulate it better. Our graduate rates at LHU need to get better, but are moving in the right direction. Our six-year graduate rate is rising – 54.8 percent, but it is below the system average of 59.9 percent.”

As for how to LHU can better serve business, Pignatello referenced The Express’ community newspaper’s lead story in Wednesday’s edition titled, “Jobs aplenty, but workers?” It reported that many employers are having difficulties finding skilled workers to fill jobs.

“I saw today’s lead article in The Express. We stand ready to work with you,” he told those in the crowd, many of them professionals, business executives and civic leaders.

“We want to be the place in Clinton County where this happens. Let’s look at short-term training and offerings that can help you get the skilled worker you need and create pathways for students with stackable credentials that lead to a degree. LHU wants to be a better partner with you, local employers, on workforce development needs. Work with us by letting us know what your workforce needs are. Consider how you can make an investment in your employees to better their skills and your productivity.”

“Did you know we have four associates degree programs?”

He said part of the reason for the enrollment drop is that some high school graduates are opting to work, as the economy improved, instead of attending college.

“In a rural area like ours, this tends to happen more so. But where you live and what your family income is should not define your future. Dual enrollment, where high school students take college courses, helps them experience college life, explore career options, and earn college credits. They usually then come in to college better prepared with the orientation and skills to succeed at the university level, and more likely to graduate on time,” he said, mentioning that he has met with Dr. Alan Lonoconus, superintendent of Keystone Central School District, to talk about strengthening relationships and dual enrollment programs.

“Dr. Lonoconus and I discussed how we can create a stronger partnership to streamline university enrollment for local high school students to encourage them to get a college degree by helping them academically, and keeping costs low. We further talked about getting more high school students to visit the campus. We also discussed career and technical education and how we might collaborate to bolster job-ready programs in skilled trades. This is very important to you as employers and for the development of the local economy. There is federal funding available for apprenticeships,” he said.

Pignatello said he does see growth in some key programs and is “proud of our Small Business Development Center, which has assisted in 55 business starts and helped generate funding to support them, which has directly created jobs.”

“We must focus on our strengths: Centers of Excellence – health care, criminal justice, business, teacher education, and solid liberal arts education that prepares you for success in life, not just your first job. We need to expand nursing and physician assistant programs – huge demand. Develop a school of nursing. A future goal: Doctorate program in nursing. Partner with health care providers, work with other educational institutions and organizations. The way forward involves collaborations. We succeed when we link with each other. The clinical placements for these programs are costly. We need health care providers to invest in them. There are related health care programs I would like to see us pursue where there is demand we can help meet. Aging populations will need rehab services and nursing home care, too,” he said.

“When we succeed, the community succeeds,” he declared. “Every dollar invested in LHU produces many more in return. LHU is an engine for upward mobility. We are No. 4 in the system taking lower income students and putting them in the top 40 percent of wage earning.

“This transforms lives.

Our graduates stay in Pennsylvania, contributing to our communities and our economy,” he said.

He said he’s working to strengthen town-gown relations, citing a number of upcoming events just a week after homecoming.

“I want to see LHU as a hub of community activity. I have immersed myself in the community and worked hard to be accessible, available, and to listen.”

Pignatello also said he is establishing an150th Anniversary Committee to plan events for 2020 by launching “a campaign linked to our rich history.” A number of community members will participate.

“I will be keeping the spotlight on the important things we do,” he said optimistically. “We have incredible potential here. We can and we will confront our challenges and convert them into opportunities to be stronger and more impactful. We cannot fail and we won’t. I am very bullish about The Haven. Climb aboard and help us all soar higher.”