Many small colleges in Central Pennsylvania are struggling, trying to find the magic cure for dwindling enrollments, shrinking revenue and rising costs. But Harrisburg University seems to have found an answer, going from an unknown, fledgling institution in a near bankrupt city, to a bustling, cutting-edge campus helping fuel an urban renaissance.

While other universities have been slow to move from their old-age, liberal arts focus to embrace new fields like e-sports and cybersecurity, President Eric Darr has pushed boldly into the new Trekkian frontiers, bringing both national and international acclaim.

And Harrisburg University’s new vision, new students and new money is helping bolster its hometown.

HU’s success has clearly been a team effort. But Darr, who took the helm in 2012, gets credit for building a diverse and creative team that has attracted students from well beyond Pennsylvania.

The university now offers online courses to students around the world, has opened a campus in Philadelphia, and even plans to open a campus in the United Arab Emirate to pull in potential students from the Middle East and Asia.

While some higher ed campuses here in Pennsylvania struggle to attract students and faculty of color, Harrisburg U seems to have figured it out. The school boasts that its percentage of women and minority students and faculty in the male-dominated STEM field are well above the national average.

In a recent article published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Darr emphasized the importance of recruiting diverse staff and faculty. When students from traditionally underrepresented groups in STEM see faculty and staff like them, Darr said, “They begin to believe that it is possible to pursue science and technology career.”

Darr’s words are backed up by the numbers. Women make up 52 percent of the university’s undergraduates, compared to 18 percent national in science and technology programs. And the university says 45 percent are African American, compared to the national average of 7.6 percent in STEM studies.

Universities typically boast about attracting students with high SAT scores or stellar grades, but Darr touts the university’s interest in students who are “curious” about science and technology, and who are willing to risk failure before they succeed.

“We have spent time, effort and money building relationships with teachers, advisers and administrators in troubled urban school districts hoping to attract smart, curious students who others will overlook or deny for admissions.”

Imagine that . . . a university that seeks out students with unrealized potential, rather than turning them away for low SAT scores; a university that reaches into the urban areas of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Harrisburg looking for hidden gems; and a university that is engaged with the city around it, rather than closed off in a cloistered campus.

As other colleges sink millions in luxury dorms and glitzy dining halls to lure the best and brightest, Harrisburg University has opted to commit to community development, offering imperfect students the tools to succeed.

Harrisburg University sees itself as vital to the city’s long-term stability, and it has become a catalyst for economic development. It has helped to revitalize the underutilized Whitaker Center with an E-sports practice facility. And this fall, a new $2 million student union facility is slated to open on the center’s arcade level, offering space for fitness and aerobic classes, as well as private study and gaming areas.

In addition, the school is proceeding with plans for a $135 million, 17-story tower in downtown Harrisburg. It is investing about $100 million in the project that will house a new health and science center.

The building also will house a hotel and restaurant and should be a significant boon to a section of downtown in need of a shot of adrenaline.

So, while there are predictions of doom and gloom for small colleges in the coming decade, Harrisburg University just might provide a clear roadmap for the future of higher education.

— The Harrisburg Patriot News

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