Navigating Uncharted Waters Wittenberg, Our Students And The Economy
As I began to write this column, I found myself thinking about all that has happened since I last shared my thoughts with you in the alumni magazine. In just a few months, the world we live in has changed in ways few of us could have predicted, and we now find ourselves in what I cautiously describe as “uncharted waters.” We, quite frankly, live in a time that presents extraordinary challenges to all of us both as individuals and as a broader community. As members of the Wittenberg family, I imagine you are asking yourselves two fundamental questions: “How is Wittenberg faring in these uncertain economic times?” and “What can I do, as a member of this family, to help?” I know that each of you has been touched personally by the changing economy and so has Wittenberg. I suspect that most of you look at your 401k retirement accounts and shake your heads (just as I do). You, too, have been bombarded with news about the ailing stock market, rising unemployment, major losses in college endowment funds and college affordability. You have also likely read stories about places such as Harvard or Stanford, where the loss in endowment income has resulted in major cutbacks in staff and faculty, and wondered about your own alma mater.
Yes, the Wittenberg endowment has also taken a significant hit, falling from a high of $120 million this past summer to $83 million this spring, resulting in nearly $750,000 less revenue to fuel our annual operating budget of $58 million. The good news is that we are not so endowment dependent as the Harvards of the world, so the hit to our operating budget is not nearly so great (although I have often said, give us Harvard’s endowment, and we will find a way to deal with the resulting problems). Nevertheless, the impact is real and will be felt not only this year, but for several years to come.
Our bigger concern, however, is ensuring that we retain our present students and attract new students in this challenging economic climate. This past month we announced a 2.9 percent tuition increase, our lowest increase since 1965. We have also developed an emergency loan pool for students who can’t find loans from any other sources, and we will be providing $30 million in student financial aid this fall. We are also working diligently to keep university costs as low as possible by making significant cuts in our existing budget while preserving the quality of the educational experience for our students.
On the new student front, our admission application numbers are down slightly (consistent with national trends), while our deposits are up (bucking the national trend), but it is still very early in the process. If you know of students who are interested in college, please tell them about the life-changing impact of a Wittenberg education. Tell your own story. Tell them also that while we will never be the low-cost option with a 12:1 faculty/student ratio, we are a great investment with lasting value.
Just this past week, I learned that 93 of our present students have expressed concerns about their ability to stay at Wittenberg in light of changing family financial circumstances. Nothing would make me sadder than to see these students leave our fine university. This is where you can help! Your support through giving to the annual fund can ensure that these young people can continue to enjoy the same wonderful education you did at Wittenberg. So I am asking,
perhaps even pleading, on their behalf that you give them this opportunity. Even a small gift makes a difference. We often refer to ourselves as the Wittenberg family, and I would ask you to respond like a family to those members of the Wittenberg family who need your help.
In these challenging times, I find myself using nautical phrases more often than ever: uncharted waters and following our compass (our strategic plan). The seas are rough; the headwinds are strong, but our young people can find safe harbor with your support. To navigate these uncharted waters, we need all hands on deck (all our alumni engaged).
Mark H. Erickson