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Small-town institution embraces bold strategies for the future

Ripon College to enhance on-campus facilities, including new sports stadium

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May 17, 2023

RIPON – As Ripon College tracks toward its 175 birthday (coming up in 2026), the college is taking purposeful steps to ensure it is a viable post-secondary education option for future generations.

This intentional work, Dr. Victoria Folse – the school’s first-ever woman president – said comes in the same higher education space that has seen several long-time, private, post-secondary educational institutions forced to shut their doors in the past year.

In contrast, Folse said Ripon College is thriving and working to ensure it remains a viable and thriving option for its nearly 800 students and those seeking the Ripon College experience in the future.

Ripon College was established in 1851 as a college preparatory school – becoming a four-year college in 1863.

Over the years, Folse said the college has built a reputation as a national leader in innovative liberal arts education.

According to the college, within six months of graduation, 98% of alumni are employed, in graduate school or student teaching.

The college offers more than 80 areas of study along with unique pre-professional programs that provide qualified students preferred and early admission into graduate programs and, in some cases, a fast track to earning professional degrees.

A bright future
April was a busy month for the institution.

The college inaugurated its first-ever woman president, publicly launched its Forever Ripon campaign, broke ground on two significant infrastructure projects and showcased key priorities as outgrowths of its strategic planning process.

Folse – who joined the college as president last July – said the $75 million comprehensive Forever Ripon campaign – which is scheduled to reach its goal by June 30, 2025 – is rooted in providing access and impact through the Ripon Fund – the most ambitious campaign in the college’s history.

During the quiet phase of the campaign, which began July 1, 2020, the college secured more than $52 million in commitments toward its overall goal.

The initiative is intended to empower Ripon College to adapt to an evolving higher education landscape and ensure a Ripon degree remains relevant.

Although Folse was just inaugurated as the institution’s 14th president in April, she started with the college last July – spending her first several months traveling the country to meet with alumni, students, faculty, staff, board members and other stakeholders through groundwork toward strategic planning.

// Folse

“It’s been an organic process,” she said. “And what we announced in April was a culmination of all our town hall meetings, SWOT analysis, retreats, etc. We had everybody endorse the groups and the pillars and the strategic initiatives.”

Over the summer, Folse said working groups will meet to continue working on the strategic imperatives under each.

“(We will ask ourselves), ‘What are innovative curricular opportunities we should pursue?’” she said. “‘What ways should we improve the engagement of alumni?’ It’s iterative and dynamic.”

Folse said in order to have a strategic plan not just be a document on the shelf, “it needs to remain alive and responsive to changes.”
“Part of our strategic planning process is to (determine) how we not only attract students to Ripon College but how do we allow them to thrive and to graduate and make an impact on the world?” she said.

Among the priorities defined for the $75 million campaign funds, Folse said $40 million is earmarked for creating access, $20 million for facility enhancement and $15 million for sustaining operations and attaining 40% overall engagement. 

Priority No. 1 – creating access
Folse said the college recognized that a stronger endowment is essential in order to attract and support new students.

Through a $25 million effort to expand access, she said, Ripon College will endow student access and retention scholarships while increasing opportunities for Ripon students to engage with faculty for scholarship and research – all while being mindful of delivering premier and affordable education.

“Thirty-six percent of our student population identify as first-generation students,” she said. “It’s important we provide access to them and to all students… Students who haven’t grown up in a two-parent household or had the privilege of knowing they would be attending post-secondary education.”

Ripon College President Victoria Folse said the new science building will have maker spaces that will allow students across majors and minors to come together and create things. Photo Courtesy of Ripon College

Folse said they are certainly not leaving behind a student population that has had a connection with Ripon College.

“But we also want to remove barriers for all students – middle-income students, students of a working-class family for which higher education has become unaffordable and out of reach,” she said. “We want to remain relevant and aware of the hardships of sending a college-age student to a private four-year institution.”

Folse said Ripon College has more applicants today who need financial help than there were a generation ago.

She said the college also aims to further its diversity and inclusion – not only in the form of an endowed director and programming but also in the everyday experience on campus. 

“We want to create the diversity on campus that expands students’ worldview,” she said. “There is room in a college setting to have diversity of thought, diversity of background and for everybody to benefit from that.”

Folse said her being named the 172-year-old college’s first female president is a statement in itself.

“I think what (my presidency) does is cement Ripon College’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, something the college has held up as a value for a long time,” she said. “To select a woman, and a first-generation college graduate mirrors the student population we have at Ripon College.”

As for curricular development and innovation, Folse said the college’s priority is to allot $15 million to continue Ripon’s tradition as a leader of liberal arts innovation.

This, she said, takes many forms – from curriculum development and experiential programming to endowed support for diversity and inclusion.

These are the less-tangible activities that will comprise students’ everyday experiences, she said.

“As we embarked on this capital campaign, we have received coverage on the infrastructure (projects), but the highest priority is to build our endowment in a way we can continue to offer students scholarships and endowed professorships,” Folse said.

She said that trails into the area of attracting and retaining the faculty and other employees who work at the college. 

“We want to lift up everybody, and the enhancement of the endowment will be the biggest part of the campaign so we can continue to have that impact,” Folse said. 

She said she recognizes a flourishing college campus can have a trickle-down effect on Ripon area businesses, as well as the community at large.

As such, Folse has taken it upon herself to host conversations with area businesses to discuss opportunities for internships and other ways to leverage the expertise in the region to benefit students and the business community alike.

“Our goal is to make our students interested in staying in Ripon or the extended Fox Valley community,” she said. “We have many students from this region, but we also have others who, once they experience life here, find it fits with their desire to give back and have meaningful relationships.”

Even if students only stay in the area for their college career, while completing an internship or performing student/faculty research, there is a legacy benefit, Folse said.

“They are elevating the community,” she said.

To that end, Folse said the college is investigating more high-impact practices, such as research opportunities, more internships and additional opportunities to build global citizenship through study abroad.

“We are looking at amplifying the student experience at Ripon College and how to take full advantage of how intimate this small campus is and how it allows for an individualized education,” she said.

The intentional focus on innovation, Folse said, is rooted in providing each student the individualized education they seek.

“We continually hear comments from students that center around the sense of wonderment, creativity and innovation that is possible when they have an individualized education,” she said. “We’re wanting to connect our students even further with that sense of belonging at the college and in the community (so they can experience) the impact they can have.”

Folse said, “She believes we’re changing generations of students and families alike.”

“We often hear about the transformative impact of higher ed (not only on them), but also their entire family, especially first-gen students,” she said.

Priority No. 2 – $20 million facility enhancement 
Perhaps the most visible of the college’s initiative priorities is its investment in facility enhancements – highlighted by the April groundbreaking on both the $24.5 million Franzen Science Center renovation and a new, $8.5 million stadium – the college’s first on-campus stadium.

“These infrastructure projects are strategic in nature,” Folse said. “We are not building for the sake of building. Our ability to break ground speaks to the investment we are making into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, knowing we have a role in this region to provide career-ready graduates to help meet workforce demand. (That includes) helping to lift up women in STEM.”

Exercise science is the college’s most popular major right now, which Folse describes as a beautiful blend of liberal arts and sports-related science. 

“Our goal is to look at what we do well and what we can then expand – strengthening what we are already doing well and attracting even more students,” she said.

Folse said Ripon College graduates students who make a tremendous impact in science-related fields, as well as employ faculty who are leaders in those areas.

“Our decision to invest in STEM-related fields that still have that core of liberal arts is about changing market demands,” she said.

// College’s $20 million for facility enhancement includes the construction of an $8.5 million, 157,000-square-foot stadium – the school’s first-ever on-campus sports facility. Photo Courtesy of Ripon College

Folse said the college is aware that many of the things graduates will do are jobs they are not aware of today.

“That’s why the liberal arts foundation of critical thinking and a capacity to communicate effectively will serve them well in whatever is the next step,” she said.

And while the spotlight is on the new science center, Folse said its benefits aren’t limited to students in that programming.
“Other disciplines will interface beautifully with the sciences,” she said. “We have maker spaces in there, and spaces that will allow students across majors and minors to come together and create things.”

Folse said although they may not be studying traditional sciences, they can use the space to see an idea come to life.

“It’s not just a traditional biology lab or chemistry lab, but (a space) of opportunities for students to create and imagine and envision things they wouldn’t in a traditional classroom space,” she said.

The new 157,000-square-foot stadium – Hopp Stadium – is a mixed-use space that will house the school’s football and soccer teams.

Folse said the stadium will allow for a better fan experience for students and families, as well as provide a setting for concerts, intramurals and other student and community activities.

Stadium highlights include: 
A 2,000-seat grandstand and press boxA formal entrance on the corner of Thorne and Union streetsLighting for evening programming
Folse said the stadium will provide a great venue for the 50% of Ripon students who are student-athletes.

“It’s intended to create vibrancy among all our students, as we gather in that space for concerts and other activities that bring the campus community together,” she said.

Hopp Stadium will open in the fall, and a fall 2024 opening is projected for the Franzen Science Center.

Priority No. 3 – $15 million sustaining operations
Folse said much of the college’s day-to-day efforts are supported by the Ripon Fund – which provides critical flexibility to the college’s budget and enables it to respond to the highest and most immediate financial needs on campus.

Priority No. 4 – 40% overall engagement 
Folse said finding ways for all alumni and friends to participate in a purposeful and tangible way has consistently been a focus of Ripon College.

“With the understanding that philanthropy follows engagement, it is our responsibility to engage alumni, parents and friends of the college through events, volunteerism and communications to strengthen their connection to Ripon and support advancement’s goals and objectives,” she said.

Folse said this includes, among other goals, increasing the percentage of the alumni base that is uniquely engaged from 32.5% to 40%. 

Positioning for the future
Folse said she views the strategic planning process, capital campaign and infrastructure projects as synergistic in setting the stage for the Ripon College of the future. 

“With the changing higher ed landscape, we need to know who we are and simplify those areas, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” she said.

Folse said it’s an exciting time.

“We’re spending in a strategic way and believe this investment will bring more students to Ripon College, retain them while they’re here, allow them to graduate and make this region better because of this strategic investment.”

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