Growth, challenges at YSU

YSU President Jim Tressel, left, talks to area state legislators about changes at YSU following his "State of the University" address.

YOUNGSTOWN — Having residents from 32 counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia living within an hour drive off Youngstown State University presents enormous possibilities for the school and its students, YSU President Jim Tressel said Thursday.

Tressel said during his “State of the University” address that the school has a potential reach to 6.8 million residents with wages of $141 billion. There are 34 Fortune 1,000 companies headquartered within the area.

“This provides internship opportunities for students and job opportunities for our graduates,” Tressel said.

The university’s environment has changed significantly in the 31 months since Tressel and his wife, Ellen, moved back to the Mahoning Valley in order for him to become YSU’s president.

Tressel said enrollment was down 17.5 percent and it had a $10 million deficit when he arrived in July 2014. Since that time, student enrollment has risen to 12,756 in fall 2016, but it has not reached the 2010 level of 15,194.

“The university was experiencing an endless stream of unfunded mandates and the state subsidies changed to being performance based,” he said.

“There were those in the national media that were questioning the value of higher education and whether it was worth it,” he said. “We were being asked to do more with less people.”

YSU’s operating budget has fallen from $154.8 million in 2010 to $152.8 million this year. The state’s share of instructional funding has fallen from $47.7 million in 2010 to $42.7 million in 2017, a 10 percent decline.

The state is holding YSU and other universities more accountable, he said.

Tressel expects university funding may become tied to whether its students find success in their fields after graduation.

“I predict that by 2020, or shortly thereafter, universities will have to prove that placement of students will be at a certain level because it will play a part in determining college funding,” Tressel said.

The university recently had its first Rhodes Scholar and two Goldwater Scholars in the same year. Ohio State University is the only other public university that had this combination, Tressel said.

The Honors College has grown from 300 students to more than 700 and it expects to have another 140 students next year, Tressel said.

Tressel said he must take the lead in the way he communicates, including listening to what others are saying and the message he presents.

“Maybe that is why I only received a one-year extension,” he said.

Tressel said one of his early goals was to find ways to stop the enrollment decline while reducing spending to control the university’s deficit. Tressel said the university’s restraint in spending has enabled it to have one of the lowest debt levels in the region.

State Rep. Michael J. O’Brien, D-Warren, said he was impressed with the university’s work in keeping its debt down, especially in comparison to other schools.

State Rep. Glenn Holmes, D-McDonald, said he likes Tressel’s articulation of the leadership position the university has taken in the Valley.

“YSU is providing leadership in the region in changing this from a steel-based economy and broadening opportunities,” Holmes said.

State Sen. Sean O’Brien, D-Bazetta, said it was illuminating to see where YSU was a few years ago and to see the progress it has made.

“Its strategic plan is improving the quality of student life and the overall quality of the region. I can personally attest seeing President Tressel in Columbus working with us to bring as much as he can back to the Valley,” O’Brien said.