August 23, 2019
This is one of the best times of the year. Our newest students have joined us on campus, while others are returning with renewed energy and anticipation. The entire campus is excited about the possibilities of the year ahead. I hope you enjoyed the new student convocation this year. It was a team effort, with many people working to bring us all together as one community dedicated to the success of our students; a community energized by their potential and grateful to play a part in their development.
We are here because we believe in the power of education to positively transform lives. We draw energy from the students around us because we have a cause that is noble. We believe in cultivating the freedom to think, wisdom to know, and aptitude to act.
Our staff and faculty are here because of their commitment to a Westminster education. I see faculty who work through weekends and vacation breaks on projects with students, who always make themselves available for mentoring, who continually adjust their courses based on student feedback, and who seek and use data to develop the best possible learning experience for students. I see staff who take pride in their work, from groundskeepers making campus beautiful, to coaches mentoring and responding to students under stress, to admissions counselors speaking confidently and proudly about the value of a Westminster education, to center directors supporting student engagement locally and globally, to financial-services personnel determined to get our numbers right. I can’t call out everyone, so please don’t think that I haven’t noticed you. I notice pride, commitment, and a growth mindset—a belief in shared purpose, an approach to challenges as opportunities to learn, and a desire to work smarter.
Like most colleges around the country, we definitely have challenges. We started talking about them more openly last year, which I know caused a mixture of relief at being included in the conversations, but also anxiety about what might lie ahead. I shared information about our financial situation and the various ways that we have managed the budget for several years, in small group conversations, open fora, and through the Griffin Gazette. My goal is to build, over the next two years, a balanced budget where we begin restoring benefits that have been reduced, and where we are also investing in staff and faculty compensation.
We’ve filled interim roles, brought in new leadership, begun creating greater operational efficiencies, and positioning ourselves more strongly in the education marketplace. But we have a lot of work left to do. Assuring long-term sustainability will require pivots in our focus and priorities and working together a bit differently than in the past. In light of that context, I’d like to talk about pivots in fundraising, budgeting, the student experience, and collaboration. I’d also like you to consider this afternoon’s remarks as an extension of our ongoing conversations that, ideally, will continue to build trust and openness.
First, regarding fundraising: Fundraising has been a source of hope, promise, and confusion. We can’t expect fundraising to cover shortfalls in tuition revenue, however enticing it might be to put a high target for unrestricted giving in our budget expectations. With the right balance of priorities and expectations, we will benefit from increases in philanthropic revenue and support. We can expect donors and foundations to continue to give generously and expand their investment in scholarships, programs, and projects that impact our students’ experience. One of those projects is the expansion of the Jewett Center for the Performing Arts, an addition that we are calling Gillmor Hall, after the lead gift made by the Gillmor Foundation. This expansion will bring us a recital hall, dance floor, practice rooms, costume shop, offices, and student lounges, so that our facility will match the quality of our programs. Our fundraising goal includes a building endowment, so that Gillmor Hall will not only be fully funded by donations, but so will maintenance of the building. We are now less than $1M away from reaching our goal and will break ground this coming year.
Our pivots in budgeting involve moving from emphasizing headcount to focusing more on tuition revenue. In the past few days I’ve heard several remarks about the size of the first-year student class, and they’re primarily: “Wow, this looks like a lot of students. Is our incoming class bigger than last year?”
Well, no, it isn’t. We began sending out updates from the cabinet since the summer indicating that the number was likely to be lower than 2018. Declining enrollments are a national issue for private institutions, as is declining public support for higher education. But we also had some very different dynamics in our own admissions processes. If you recall, for the entering class of 2018, we were focused so much on headcount that we waived admissions requirements, overspent on financial aid, and generally looked the other way on various deadlines and expectations. We also admitted our last cohort of aviation students. These choices brought us a larger class, but is was comprised of more students who were, overall, less committed and connected to Westminster, which is reflected in our lower retention of those students this year. This, as well as the lower number of entering students this year, including in our graduate and professional programs, is affecting our overall enrollment.
Although the numbers are smaller than anticipated, our entering cohort of students are more engaged and prepared for a Westminster education. We will have firm numbers at our census date in October, but we currently have about 400 new first-year and transfer undergraduates. One in five is a first-generation-to college student. Over 20 percent are students of color. They have met all admissions requirements, they are more likely to have visited campus before enrolling, and they are more likely to be living on campus. Our residence halls are at 92 percent occupancy, our highest in years. These are all markers of retention and student success, and retention is an even greater indicator of institutional health than admitting new students. In fact, national data show that one of the most direct ways to improve persistence and graduation rates is to increase the residential population on your campus.
When I say that we need to pivot on our approach to budget, I’m also talking about fundamental shifts in how we think about tuition. You may recall a few times last year when I compared our tuition price and net revenue to other private colleges. We are priced far below similar institutions, yet our institutional aid packages are just as high. While other institutions have raised tuition four, five, or six percent in recent years, we have held ours lower. As you may know, our published undergraduate tuition rate is just under $35,000. As our website states, the average tuition cost this year for a full-time undergraduate student is just under $13,000. That’s an average, of course. Some students get more than $22,000 in aid, and some less. Our goal is to give more to those with the highest financial need.
I understand how hard it can be to require students to pay for the education we think they deserve, but we already give out more institutional aid relative to our tuition price than we can afford. Even so, we hear complaints about our cost. For example, recently, the father of a student emailed me with complaints about how tuition had gone up every year. His daughter’s financial aid was increased her first year, when he called the president, but not the next, and he really thought that she should get more institutional aid. (Actually, it wasn’t the phone call that brought increased aid; it was a change in the family’s financial situation). You should know that the first thing I do in these cases is refer parents back to the financial aid office, because that’s where the expertise is. Dad still wasn’t happy, and he called me. I called back, left a message and told him that we’ve done what we can. He called and left another message or two. I have to tell you I was a bit irritated, because after all of the aid that we’re providing, the daughter has a tuition bill of $6,400 for the year and is eligible for a subsidized loan that more than covers the bill.
But I’m not going to be one of those people who doesn’t return calls, so I called him back. We talked about his expectation that tuition wouldn’t increase, and I talked about tuition increases at private colleges, rising health care and insurance costs, and infrastructure demands. I told him that it took 2-3x what he’s paying to educate his daughter, which meant that other students were paying a lot more so that his bill could be so low. And, perhaps most importantly, I talked about all the things that come with that tuition payment. It’s not just classes. It’s 24-hr. support from staff. It’s on-site health and counseling services. It’s food services, recreational facilities, clubs and activities, computer labs, organized outdoor experiences, and a complete community dedicated to the growth and learning of his daughter. At no other time in her life was she likely to have access to all of those resources and opportunities. The father thanked me for the conversation, both on the phone and in a follow-up email.
There are two points I hope you take away from this story. First, take the time to learn and respect the professional expertise of your colleagues and the distinctive roles that all kinds of staff and faculty need to play. I will send financial aid questions to the financial aid office, records requests to the registrar, student-conduct issues to the dean of students. It’s great to establish personal connections in the workplace, but sometimes we know more about people’s families and their personal lives than we do about their professional roles and responsibilities. It’s the latter, understanding their roles and responsibilities, that help create a respectful, healthy, and ultimately productive workplace.
Second, we have got to be clear and confident about who we are and the value of what we do. This leads me to my third pivot: our confidence about the student experience that we provide. We are a student-centered community committed to the pursuit of academic excellence that privileges face-to-face instruction, cultivates inclusive learning environments, and works to increase access and success for underrepresented students. We recognize and support residential living and integrated learning, because we know that engaged students are more likely to stay long enough to complete a degree and are more likely to have a fulfilling life after graduation.
We need to think differently about our competitors and comparators. Although we compete with local, public institutions for students, they are not comparable to Westminster. They are not our peer group of private, liberal arts colleges and universities. Our difference from, not comparison to, public universities, will make us sustainable. Instead of directing students to classes at the U or SLCC because they’re less expensive, we need our classes to be distinctive in the way they’re taught, the connections they have to other classes and programs, the attention we’re giving to students in and out of class, and the inclusive community were creating in our classrooms.
At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, we need to rethink our academic programs, content, and structure with greater attention to student needs and our external environment. Our program priorities need to be based less on what we think would be interesting and exciting, and more on what data tell us about student interests and market needs. This doesn’t mean changing our core liberal arts foundation, but better aligning the directions that our programs are taking with that data. That’s why we’ve engaged in a program portfolio workshop, why we’re bringing external data together with internal financial data, and why Debbie Tahmassebi and Richard Badenhausen are leading a group on strategic positioning. How do we make the most of who we are, and what we can do consistent with and informed by external trends? Our work this fall will be intense and, hopefully, energizing, as we take a realistic and forward-looking approach to our mix of academic offerings and distinctiveness.
There’s a final pivot I’d like you to consider, and that’s regarding the way we approach collaboration. Perhaps the most cynical reaction I’ve heard regarding new leadership in any academic institution is: we’ll just keep doing what we do and wait out the new people; retreat to our silos and protect our territory. This strategy leads to isolation from each other. We miss the greatest opportunities of all to coordinate our efforts, cooperate to build trusting professional relationships across campus, and collaborate in ways that bring our best collective ideas to action.
Know that the people I have hired or promoted into their current cabinet positions are here, as are others on cabinet, because they believe in the power and potential of a Westminster education. They believe in you. They have years of experience in similar roles and a record of commitment to the institutions they have served. They, and the entire cabinet, are already working together across areas and with shared purpose, but they need your help and support. They, in turn, will do everything in their power to help move our college forward.
As we close the books on last year and register students for this one, we already know that the hard decisions you helped to make last year means we drew a bit less from our reserves than we thought we’d have to. At the same time, we won’t meet our revenue target this year with our current student enrollment. The representatives on the Planning and Priorities Committee will continue to help make recommendations regarding our resources. We’ll find greater operational efficiencies, but those efficiencies won’t just be in improving our admissions processes or targeting our marketing. We’ll need to be taking a harder look at the faculty-student ratios that we talked about last year and making choices about our academic priorities.
Many of you heard our undergraduate student body president, Maggie Regier, speak so eloquently at convocation on Monday. She described Westminster as: “a community of bold visionaries, deep thinkers, and passionate individuals who are unafraid to challenge you …. It is our generation that is creating the change we wish to see in the world. We will no longer stand for the way that things have been…. The community you will find on this campus will allow you to thrive in a way nothing else can.”
It’s a bold statement. It should remind us of the promise that we make to students and call for us to live up to the values and skills that we claim we cultivate in them. We expect our students to take risks, develop personal responsibility, learn from difference, and commit to building a sustainable future. We must expect the same of ourselves.
We have tremendous opportunities in the coming year and can’t afford to waste them. Support the colleagues who have created the communities our students love, embrace the new leaders who can inspire us to work together creatively and productively, and get ready to rebuild the institution that the world still so desperately needs.