Drew University always had an Ivy League look. Drive through the gated entrance of the leafy, 186-acre Madison, N.J. campus and you’re soon confronted by Mead Hall, a massive Greek-revival mansion built in 1836, with its brick façade, white portico columns and green colonial window shutters. The rooms inside are just as stately, with 20-foot-high ceilings and large oil paintings of the founders and past presidents staring down at you. But the mood starts to change as you walk across the grand foyer and up a long staircase to the president’s office suite.
Once there, you will meet MaryAnn Baenninger, the 13th president of Drew, and her cabinet of executive officers. Dressed in a tasteful pantsuit and silk scarf, Dr. Baenninger may look like she belongs in an ivory tower, but hers is no stuffy academic administration. She and her team are change agents who have recently been recruited to turn around Drew, which had been hemorrhaging students and revenues.
It is one of hundreds of middling colleges around the nation that struggle each year to bring in enough students and tuition revenue to pay their bills. In 2015 the university, which has 2,151 students, accepted about 70% of applicants for its Class of 2019. (By comparison, schools such as Harvard and Stanford accept less than 5%.) But even with its generous acceptance policy Drew is a perennial member of the “space available” list of colleges in need of freshmen well past the traditional May 1 deadline, because most of its accepted students prefer other schools.
And Drew’s discount rate–the percentage of tuition it rebates in the form of “aid” to attract students–recently hit an alarmingly high 69%. Despite that, freshman enrollment has fallen from a peak of 506 in 2009 to 302 in 2014, the year Baenninger arrived after righting the finances of the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn.