Allegheny College didn’t have to look far to find its 23rd president.
Role Cole, 58, already had been named interim leader and then president with a short-term contract after Hilary Link announced her departure in September. Prior to that, he had been Allegheny’s provost since 2015 and a geology professor since 1994 on the campus where he also earned his undergraduate degree.
In an interview Monday, Cole described Allegheny with 1,450 students as ready for the challenges facing it and other liberal arts campuses in a difficult higher education market.
He expressed gratitude to the college for its leaders’ decision Thursday to extend his contract to a five-year term.
“I’m humbled, honored and motivated for the work ahead,” said Cole. “I have great confidence in the Allegheny community.”
In voting to keep him in the president’s office, leaders cited Cole’s leadership style, deep history with Allegheny, strategic planning work and a record fundraising year for the college with gifts exceeding $19 million. Consultation with various individuals on campus and in Meadville indicated wide support, officials said.
“Dr. Cole has brought the campus together through his leadership, he is passionate about Allegheny College and our students, and brings an innovative approach to the Presidential position,” Steve Levinsky, Board of Trustees Chair, said in a statement. “We support his efforts to continue elevating Allegheny’s position as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country.”
Nationwide, enrollment in higher education has slumped in recent years, amid a drop in traditional-age college students, worries about cost and student debt, and decisions by some prospective students that they can do better after high school by going straight into the job market.
Moreover, colleges already are bracing for deeper losses as the decline in birth rate from the Great Recession of 2008 reaches campuses in 2025 and 2026 — an event dubbed by some a “demographic cliff.”
Allegheny, founded in 1815, is in a state with one of the nation’s highest concentrations of private colleges, many of them, like Allegheny, scrambling to fill seats. That and competition with public campuses, which also have seen enrollment declines, further complicate the market.
“I believe that Allegheny and other liberal arts colleges need to meet this challenge by demonstrating how we will show relevance for the workforce, for student outcomes and career pathways,” he said.
A liberal arts education provides a grounding in transferable skills, said Cole. He pointed to distinguishing aspects of his campus, including a requirement that students pursue minors in areas well removed from their major and a recent vote by faculty to support creating “micro-credentials” in which students develop focused skills from communication to finance.
He said the college “is brimming with outstanding and dedicated faculty and staff and is a leader in innovative interdisciplinary education and research.”
Cole said he believes the college is on the path to boosting enrollment to 1,600 with increased applications, given efforts including a program announced last year to cover full tuition for up to four years for in-state students from households making $50,000 or less.
Allegheny’s total cost to attend, including tuition, room, board and other fees was $71,125 in 2023-24, according to the college’s website.
The reduction students received from that total through financial aid was not available. But in 2021-22, full-time beginning undergraduate students who received grant or scholarship aid from federal, state or local governments, or the institution, had an average net price of $26,719, according to the most current data available from the U.S. Department of Education.
Cole was named interim president in September 2022 with the announcement that then president Link was leaving, effective immediately, for personal and professional reasons after three years in the job.
In February, Link was hired as president of Drew University in Madison, N.J.
Cole was an undergraduate at Allegheny and received his bachelor’s degree there in 1987. He has a master’s and doctoral degree in geological sciences from the University of Rochester.