Chapter 3: Holistic Approach to Higher Education

by Gregory G. Dell’Omo, Ph.D.

Posted on October 20, 2021

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It’s no secret that the landscape of higher education is changing rapidly. Every day, tuition-dependent private institutions are grappling with issues related to affordability, enrollment, competition, shrinking state and federal funding, student success and retention, and the looming drop in the number of high school graduates.

It’s no secret that the landscape of higher education is changing rapidly. Every day, tuition-dependent private institutions are grappling with issues related to affordability, enrollment, competition, shrinking state and federal funding, student success and retention, and the looming drop in the number of high school graduates. As if this wasn’t enough, a global pandemic swept in, exacerbating existing challenges and creating unforeseen new ones.

Institutions tackling these mounting challenges are making every effort to become more competitive by enhancing the student experience and value proposition. Focusing on affordability and a vibrant living and learning environment, one that fully engages students inside and outside the classroom, is paramount. And of course, institutions must prepare themselves, as best as possible, for the long-term impact of COVID-19. 

For 156 years, Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, has always had a remarkable ability to adapt. However, the past five years have undeniably been the most transformative in its long history as the university set forth on a path to rethink its vision in fundamental ways and transform the Rider student experience. The premise was to reimagine a Rider education as a vibrant, holistic, and affordable experience, exciting and engaging in ways that go beyond classroom learning to real work experiences. 

Fortunately, this work was well underway when COVID-19 showed up and threw Rider and the entire world of higher education an 80-mile-per-hour curveball. It didn’t take long to realize everything Rider had already set forth in its strategic plan was just put on an accelerated pace, one racing a deadly virus to the finish line. 

One of the first major transformations at Rider came in 2017 with the launch of its signature Engaged Learning Program, which requires every student to participate in curricular and/or extracurricular experiences and begin to apply the knowledge they gain in the classroom in real-world situations. Over their four years at Rider, students must earn six Engaged Learning Points by taking an approved course, participating in an approved experience, or completing community service hours. 

Students can choose to participate in activities that reflect their individual personality and interests. These activities are organized into six categories: Leadership and Mentoring; Study Abroad and Cultural Exploration; Guided Research and Scholarship; Civic and Community Engagement; Arts, Media, and Creativity; and Internships, Co-ops, and Fieldwork. 

As students progress to graduation, their Engaged Learning Points are reflected on their Engaged Learning Transcript, which together with a student’s traditional academic transcript provides prospective employers, graduate counselors, and others with a deeper understanding of who a student really is, beyond just academic accomplishments.

This concept of Engaged Learning allows Rider students to build bridges between their course of study and the world in which we live.   

This concept of Engaged Learning allows Rider students to build bridges between their course of study and the world in which we live. It connects academics, career goals, and experiential learning with personal interests to create a meaningful and unique educational experience. 

In alignment with the Engaged Learning Program, Rider created a separate, career-related optional opportunity for students called Enriched Career Experiences to provide high-impact professional opportunities that provide first-hand exposure to working in the professional world, plus structured support and coaching from Rider’s Office of Career Development and Success. 

Through this initiative, a Rider career coach works exclusively within each of Rider’s four colleges to find career opportunities, secure professional development training, and ensure students are making progress towards career objectives and goals. The career coaches work closely with students to offer guidance and plan to maximize opportunities and prepare for the future. An Enriched Career Experience is a 100+ hour opportunity that can be completed during a semester or in the summer. Examples include internships, co-ops, student teaching, fieldwork, guided research, scholarship, career-focused opportunities, professional development workshops, on-campus student employment internships or shadowing experiences, to name a few. 

A concerted effort was also taken to develop partnerships with companies and organizations that demonstrate a commitment to the professional development of their employees by making higher education more accessible and affordable. To that end, Rider has created dozens of university partnerships with local, regional, and national organizations by offering reduced tuition rates on industry-aligned academic programs. 

Beyond supporting the professional development of their employees or members, Rider University partner organizations benefit from access to custom-designed training programs, educational sessions led by expert faculty, discounted advertising on the student-run radio station, discounted tickets to athletic events and performances, internships, recruitment opportunities, and more. Each partnership is unique, with dedicated admission counseling, custom marketing support to promote the partnership, a streamlined admission process, and flexible evening, part-time, and hybrid program options to make it easier and more convenient for employees of university partners to complete their degrees. 

With Rider’s Engaged Learning and Enriched Career Experience programs well underway, it was time to tackle the next hurdle: affordability. 

To that end, in October 2020, Rider announced a series of new measures intended to strengthen the overall value of a Rider education, including a 22% reduction of annual undergraduate tuition, as well as robust support for career preparation and academic success. The new initiative, called Lifting Barriers, was designed to help students break through significant obstacles they face in obtaining a college education and a successful career, including understanding the true cost of college and the ability to adapt, both socially and academically, in a college environment and beyond. 

Like many universities, Rider follows a complex pricing model that provides substantial discounts through scholarships and financial aid. This model can be challenging for students and families who believe a Rider education is financially out of reach based solely on the institution’s “sticker price.” The Lifting Barriers initiative aims to provide more clarity on the actual cost of a Rider education and reduce the stigma that a private education is simply out of reach or unaffordable. 

Under the new tuition model, Rider will continue to generously award financial aid and scholarships. Ninety-nine percent of all students currently receive Rider-funded scholarships and financial aid—a percentage that is not expected to change under the new model. But for new students who receive the new, lower advertised tuition, the need for financial aid will also be lower. Rider will adjust these awards according to the reduced need, which means that out-of-pocket costs to students will remain similar. 

This strategy reduces the trajectory of Rider’s high-tuition, high-discount pricing model, which was ballooning to unrealistic levels, but it does not change its commitment to generously awarding financial aid and scholarships. Because the net price is remaining stable, applying the new tuition rate to current students has no effect on their cost of attendance, which is why Rider chose not to apply the new rates to current students. Rider continues to honor financial awards promised to current students at the time of admission, assuming all student requirements continue to be met. 

Along with changes to tuition, the Lifting Barriers initiative also included measures to bolster the University's already strong record of preparing students for successful careers. 

Rider has set a new target that 95% of all students, beginning with the Class of 2025, will participate in enriched career preparation experiences such as internships, fieldwork, and co-ops across all disciplines, including the arts, sciences, business, and more. Although the aforementioned Engaged Learning Program already requires students to participate in meaningful co-curricular experiences in order to graduate, the new measures double down on those experiences most likely to lead to career success.

More than ever, students want to know that their education will directly lead to a positive outcome upon graduation.   

More than ever, students want to know that their education will directly lead to a positive outcome upon graduation. Launching the Engaged Learning Program confirmed that experiences like internships are directly correlated with career preparedness. The priority is to build on this knowledge so that Rider is doing everything within its power to help ensure students are prepared to succeed professionally immediately following graduation. 

To make this possible, Rider is investing heavily in Career Development and Success with new staff, enhanced technologies, and other additional resources so students have the support they need to develop on-the-job skills, build their resumes, and make valuable connections. 

The move continues Rider’s ongoing investment in infrastructure to provide more support so students understand and take advantage of Rider’s outstanding academic, social, and career resources. For example, last summer Rider launched the new Student Navigation Office, which is designed to provide students with a proactive approach to success coaching that consists of a robust support system connecting them to their academic, social, career-oriented needs and resources. In fall 2020, Rider opened its Center for Diversity and Inclusion, a cornerstone in promoting a safe and welcoming physical environment and campus climate that garners a sense of belonging for the University's diverse community. 

Taken as a whole, the changes implemented under the Lifting Barriers initiative send a clear message that Rider stands very competitively alongside our peers, including public colleges and universities, and is dedicated to supporting students on their journey of achieving their personal and professional goals. 

But Rider didn’t stop there. Six months after the launch of Lifting Barriers, Rider introduced a new program in spring 2021 that guarantees undergraduate students who fulfill their responsibilities will obtain an entry-level job related to their field of study or be accepted into graduate or professional school within six months of graduation. 

Called the Cranberry Investment (“Cranberry” refers to Rider’s primary school color), the program further reinforces Rider’s longstanding commitment to providing transformative student experiences that lead to career success. Students who invest in a Rider education should feel confident their university is going to do everything it can to make sure they reach their full potential. The Cranberry Investment symbolizes that deeply held belief that a Rider education allows students to achieve their professional dreams. 

According to a study of the Class of 2020 conducted by Rider’s Office of Career Development and Success, nine of every 10 Rider alumni are employed, in graduate school, or volunteering within a year of graduation. To reach the goal set forth by the Cranberry Investment, Rider supports current students, prior to graduation, by helping them find internships, co-ops, field work, and other professional opportunities. For any eligible student who does not acquire an entry-level position in their field of study or acceptance into graduate or professional school within six months of graduation, Rider will provide focused career coaching and/or either additional undergraduate coursework (up to nine credits for free) or a paid internship to gain experience in their field of study. 

Undergraduate students graduating in the Class of 2022 and thereafter who meet specific program requirements are eligible to participate in the Cranberry Investment. Other requirements of eligibility are determined by factors such as overall GPA and completing certain workshops or courses offered through Rider’s Office of Career Development and Success. 

Rider has built a robust student support system that reflects our unwavering commitment to helping students in their quest to earn a rewarding education and lasting career success. The Cranberry Investment is an important next step that ensures Rider will do that to the best of its abilities.

At Rider, we believe a student’s future is wide open. We also believe that learning doesn’t happen the same way for everyone, and it definitely doesn’t happen all in one place.   

At Rider, we believe a student’s future is wide open. We also believe that learning doesn’t happen the same way for everyone, and it definitely doesn’t happen all in one place. Our overarching goal, both before the pandemic and even more certainly now, is to give students the freedom to pursue their passions within a connected community built upon thriving together and knowing that they don’t have to go at it alone. 

Despite the challenges weighing on the industry as a whole, and the future impacts yet to be realized in a post-pandemic environment, Rider is confident in its unique strengths and the steps it has taken and will continue to take to support students on their journey of achieving personal and professional goals. With big-picture thinking, a passion for what we do, and the willingness to roll up our sleeves and be bold, Rider will continue to thrive for the next 150+ years.