By: Sandy Pfeiffer
Last night Evelyn and I hosted a dinner for about 25 friends of the College, who then accompanied us to a great Swannanoa Gathering concert at Kittridge. Having the Gathering as part of our community during the summer reminds me that the culture at this college has extraordinary depth and diversity throughout the entire year. Besides attending events like Gathering concerts and taking some vacation, I’ve spent much of the summer planning for the year ahead. The planning continues next week when the President’s Advisory Council holds a retreat to discuss major issues for the current academic year and beyond. I thought I would use this “summer report” to cover a couple such issues. By the way, this year I’ll continue my custom of sending you periodic reports that are also posted on my web site. Besides the report you’re now reading, there will be eight more: for August, September, November, December/January (combined), February, March, April, and May/June/July (combined).
This report deals mostly with the topic of enrollment. But first I want to mention the significant progress we’ve made with fund-raising this past year. Despite having to spend much of the year assessing needs of the Advancement Office and building the needed structure for the future, we did very well with gifts. At the end of June, our “total giving” for the fiscal year was over $4,000,000—compared to about $2,400,000 the year before and about $2,000,000 the year before that. Just as important, the “annual giving” portion of our total exceeded the goal we established. Again, these increases occurred despite our having some positions unfilled. Another piece of good news is that the current fiscal year (beginning July 1) already has shown outstanding promise, with several large bequests. Although we have major fund-raising challenges ahead to reach the level of endowment this college must have, our new Advancement Office is making much progress. With an expanded Advancement staff, we’ll strive to maintain an upward trend so that our operating budget becomes less dependent on student tuition. As well, increased fund-raising leads to more support for financial aid.
Besides fund-raising, another factor that determines our financial health is enrollment. I have good news on that front in that we’ve attracted yet another fine class of first-year and transfer students. The hard work of a dedicated Admission staff—coupled with the growing reputation of this college that all of you have helped foster—places us in a comfortable and enviable position. Because tuition revenue is the largest part of our operating budget, finding enough students who meet our admission standards and who choose to attend Warren Wilson is essential to our future. That said, I know the size of our enrollment is a sensitive issue, so I want to address the subject here.
When I became president of the College in July 2006, I quickly learned that enrollment growth is a hot topic. In the Convocation Address I gave the next month, I noted that we would try to stabilize the average fall/spring enrollment at about 800 students for three years—with the following understandings. First, I’m obligated to consult with our Board of Trustees on such critical matters, for that group governs the College; second, changing financial conditions that affect the well-being of the College can alter decisions about enrollment; and third, unusual changes in retention and acceptance rates also might influence the number of students we enroll. Indeed, some relatively minor enrollment adjustments in the last two years can be attributed to all such contingencies, as detailed below.
I announced last year that we accepted a few additional students for Fall 2007 so that we could meet anticipated increases in the operating budget. Also, this past year the Board of Trustees discussed the fact that an average of 800 students for the year would still leave some dormitory rooms unfilled, especially given that about 11-13% of our students routinely live off campus each year. At its February 2008 meeting, the Board decided that the College should make every effort to fill existing dorms to help reduce tuition increases. In other words, the trustees considered it preferable to add a few more students, assuming there is adequate space, than to increase tuition even more than we do at present. That point said, they agreed with my request that we only fill current dorms if we are able to do so while maintaining our admission standards. Again, we are talking about filling dorms that have already been built.
Another factor leading to our modest growth this year relates to statistical “surprises” that occurred. Admission Office staff members used past practice and models to try to enroll the exact number of students that would fill our dormitories. They would have hit their target if our yield had stayed about the same. (Here “yield” is considered to be the number of accepted students who attend.) In fact, the yield was higher than expected, indicating that more students who are accepted to Warren Wilson are choosing to attend. While the final enrollment is still uncertain because of last-minute deadlines, we know we’ll need some additional beds this fall. To help solve this short-term problem, the President’s Advisory Committee and I have decided to establish several “affinity residence halls” in houses that the College owns on campus (for example, Preston House). As I write, these houses are being upgraded to accommodate small groups of students.
Therefore, in light of (a) the request by our trustees to hold down tuition increases by filling existing dorms and (b) a higher-than-average yield of new students, we’ll probably have a "headcount" of between 25 and 40 more students this fall compared to last fall. This figure includes residential students as well as those who live off campus (which accounts for about 11-13% of our students). Interestingly, the increase mainly comprises transfer students, not first-year students. The probable size of our first-year class (that is, not including transfers) will be about 250, only five higher than the 245 we had in Fall 2005. Almost assuredly, the number of students at the College this semester will decrease next semester because of attrition, leaving a yearly average lower than fall enrollment. I should add that we’ll use this year’s experience with an increased yield to make adjustments in how we handle acceptance rates for next year.
Our next enrollment-related challenge is to determine what new funding is needed for programs, services, faculty, and staff, such that we maintain and indeed improve the quality of the education provided to our students. Further, our commitment to sustainability means we must weigh the economic, social, and environmental impact of all decisions. Toward that end, the President’s Advisory Council will use its planning retreat next week to consider improvements needed to accommodate our enrollment. One particularly important task this coming year—led by Paula Garrett, vice president for academic affairs—will be to review academic needs and recommend any additional faculty and program support that may be required.
In sharing this much detail about fundraising and enrollment, I’m hoping your eyes have not glazed over. My goal is to set the stage for an informed and productive campus-wide discussion about changes needed to improve the quality of the Wilson experience. All of you will have an opportunity to take part in the conversation in due course. In the meantime, thank you for building and sustaining a community that so many students, faculty, and staff want to join.