Par Excellence

Par Excellence

Entering her fifth year as college president, Kathryn Foster defines a strategy to keep TCNJ at the forefront of higher education.

As president of The College of New Jersey, Kathryn Foster has steered the campus community through the morass of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdown of the college. Yet she’s also confronted a shifting landscape affecting higher education nationally. To address those changes, she led an effort to update the college’s strategic plan, titled TCNJ 2027: Extending Our Excellence. And she has committed to creating a more racially and ethnically diverse campus, resulting in another mission document, We Are TCNJ: A Strategy for Inclusive Excellence. On a steamy day in July, as she prepared for another year on campus, President Foster sat for a wide-ranging interview focused largely on what’s ahead for The College of New Jersey.

I’ll start with a wide-open question: Your impression on four years as president of TCNJ?

The College of New Jersey lives up to what it says it is. The education is exceptional. The community is genuine and caring. The faculty and staff are supremely talented. The students are intellectually curious, dedicated, and fun.

What were your initial priorities?

I was following President Barbara Gitenstein, who in her 19 years at the helm had accelerated progress on a trajectory of excellence and brought about an exceptional academic transformation, now a signature of the college. The community was ready to take the college to the next level, but we needed to define what that looked like. I also saw there were headwinds in higher education that TCNJ would have to face, and I wanted to be sure we were prepared to weather them.

What were some of the headwinds you saw? How has higher education changed in the past five to 10 years?

I’d start by saying the credential of a college degree remains important. It is a significant qualification for lifelong success. But in terms of public opinion, the sands are shifting. More people are asking: Is a college degree worth it?

More pressing, there are fewer traditional-age students today than there were 10 years ago. College enrollments peaked around 2011 in the United States, and they’ve been going down since. They are about to go down more dramatically, starting in 2026, due to a downturn in U.S. birth rates that began around the 2008 economic recession.

Fewer students means greater competition to enroll them. The Ivy League institutions and other elite private schools will fill their classes, and in some cases, will pull top students who used to choose TCNJ. Not surprisingly, many colleges are offering more attractive financial aid packages. To attract 1,500 students each year, we have to make sure we’re putting aid on the table. It’s a real buyer’s market.

Add to this the pandemic, which was a full-body disruption — academics, housing, sports, extracurriculars, buildings, and grounds. The question became: How do you continue to maintain anything — educational excellence, progress toward degrees — in an environment in which you’re not face to face? In all aspects of college life, we had to step back and take a new look at the norms of the college and how we might do things differently.

How are student expectations changing? What more, or what else, do they want from the college experience?

Increasingly, our students are saying, “Regardless of what my major is, I want to know there’s a postgraduate opportunity for me.” So we’re investing more in our career services, our leadership programs, our internships, our study abroad programs, and our service learning and volunteerism programs.

This is a focus of the new strategic plan?

Yes. We want to strengthen what we do at the undergraduate level so that it remains relevant in a rapidly changing world. That requires us to anticipate the evolving needs of students and stakeholders. In addition to integrating some of the high-impact practices that set students up for postgraduate success, the plan calls for us to revisit our general education curriculum to ensure that it is impactful. We also want to be mindful that our community mirrors the world around us in terms of diversity. Finally, the plan envisions investment in our facilities so that the learning environment prepares students for what they will see and how they will work in settings after TCNJ.

TCNJ has traditionally been a primarily undergraduate institution. How will you grow beyond the undergraduate core? Can you give some specifics of what some of the new offerings may be?

The plan calls for us to develop graduate degree and certificate programs — and enhance online and hybrid options — that will allow us to serve a broader range of students. For example, we have a new Master’s in Public Policy in the final stages of approval that will help meet the demand for trained policy analysts and advocates in Trenton and beyond.

We’re looking to expand 4+1 and dual-degree offerings, which would allow our undergraduates to stay for an extra year and graduate with a master’s. The MPP will be one of several degrees available in this way. There are also new certificates in the pipeline, and we are developing innovative ways for students to combine credentials to suit their career needs.

It isn’t growth for growth’s sake, though. Modestly growing enrollment will contribute to TCNJ’s financial sustainability and provide the resources necessary to support continued excellence across the institution.

As you expand, how will you serve the public good?

TCNJ’s public mission commits to bettering our communities at the local, national, and global levels. Through the plan, we’ll create strategic partnerships with government, corporate, nonprofit, and academic collaborators to align with our institutional strengths, such as urban education and urban health. We will also promote grant-sponsored research and initiatives that serve the public good and address urgent societal needs. Finally, we’ll maximize opportunities for student-, faculty-, or staff-led community-engaged learning.

Inclusive excellence is a foundational element of the plan. Tell us more.

We Are TCNJ, which is embedded in the strategic plan, has three priorities. One is to become a more diverse institution — the faculty, the staff, the students — and therefore more representative of the state of New Jersey. The second is creating a campus environment in which our diverse members and experiences are supported, respected, and valued. The third is making sure the college’s systems — policies, data, governance, and practices — sustain our commitment to equity and inclusion.

As you move forward, are there institutional values at TCNJ that are non-negotiable to you?

Yes. Things like the ethos of excellence, the commitment to community, and the commitment to inclusion and engagement.

On the academic side, we will continue to advance the teacher-scholar model. As teacher-scholars, our faculty bring the students along with them as learners, scholars, and researchers. This shows up in the breadth of undergraduate research opportunities. We are also committed to keeping relatively small class sizes.

These mission-driven aspects of TCNJ are non-negotiable because they’re central to what has led to such successful outcomes for our students.

How do you think TCNJ will look different, physically, in five years?

In the coming years, we aim to improve the quality of our residence halls and build new housing. As we did with Campus Town, this could involve working with a partner and building on land owned by the college adjacent to or near campus. Generally, though, we will lean toward renovating existing buildings rather than building new ones. We’d like to locate all of our nursing and health sciences programs in one place, and we hope to expand our Business Building.

Also underway is an athletics master plan to identify and prioritize upgrades to facilities that will support our student athletes, intramural, and club programs and help to recruit new participants.

We are improving our underground infrastructure — the steam and water piping — so that it can support us for the next 50 to 70 years. If you visit campus this fall, you will see a lot of trenching as we work on that project.

So you don’t plan to sleep for the next 10 years?

Not only do I not plan to sleep, but the team does not plan to sleep. There’s so much going on. We are consciously building partnerships — with other academic institutions, with communities, with governments, with nonprofit organizations, with employers for internships or other kinds of opportunities. Going forward, students, staff, faculty, and alumni can expect us to continue our commitment to excellence and become even more distinctive, more impactful, and more diverse.

You mentioned alumni. What role do they play in planning the future of the college?

Our alumni lead the way in telling the story of TCNJ through their successes and contributions to their professions and communities. In turn, we love to hear about and celebrate their achievements.

More formally, our outstanding alumni association provides many ways to keep our alums connected to the college and support the institution. They bring visibility on a national and international level to The College of New Jersey. It’s so wonderful when alumni introduce us to prospective students or employees by saying, “Hey, take a look at this great place.”

We always appreciate when alumni are engaged; for example, when they attend events here, participate on panels, or offer internships or job shadowing opportunities. Our alumni are also generous when it comes to financial and philanthropic support.

All these ways of connecting let our students see that their TCNJ community doesn’t end when they walk across the stage and get their diploma. Rather, they’ve entered a large network of 90,000 people who know this place and care about it.

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