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Exclusive: President Dobkin releases approximate Westminster budget for 2020-21 fiscal year

Westminster student walks into Bamberger
A Westminster student enters Bamberger Hall, where the offices for the president, provost, and financial aid are located on March 25. Bamberger was built in 1967 and has since served as the center of administrative and financial operations on campus. (Anthony Giorgio)

In a Feb. 25 email, President Beth Dobkin shared the approximate budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year with The Forum, marking the first time such information has been released to the general student body. In broad strokes, President Dobkin listed the various sources of revenue that the college has taken in, as well as its general expenses.

President Dobkin is the first president to disclose details of the institutional budget to the student body, releasing the same figures to both ASW and The Forum. However, as of March 16, the administration confirmed there are no plans to make an announcement through official channels.

“Westminster does not plan to publish the college budget publicly beyond what’s already provided,” said Arikka Von, the director of strategic communication. 

Von explained that every year, faculty and staff are given a general budget overview, and this year that broad overview would also be extended to students via The Forum and ASW.

According to President Dobkin, the college plans to take in around $42 million in revenue this year and pay around $48 million in expenses. Under normal circumstances, this would amount to a $6 million deficit, but government aid related to COVID-19 has helped to mitigate that deficit. 

The largest expenses President Dobkin disclosed were $18 million in instruction and $15 million to academic and student support.

Around half of the institution’s funding comes from undergraduate tuition, according to President Dobkin. The remainder is supported through graduate and professional degrees, philanthropy and gifts — which includes Gillmor Hall, the extension of the Jewett Center for Performing Arts which is currently under construction. 

The amount of revenue that came from government aid was not detailed, as the administration is still working to determine the amount that can be used for institutional support. 

Westminster College received $1,883,000 in CARES Act funding in 2020, and the COVID-19 relief bill passed on Feb. 27 allocated nearly $40 billion to higher education — of which Westminster will likely receive a portion.

“There’s no 1:1 correlation between a students’ [sic] tuition bill and college expenses, and student tuition revenue does not cover the cost of providing a Westminster education,” Dobkin said in an email to The Forum. “We continually strive for increased revenue through philanthropy, development of academic programs that are attractive to students, and greater operational efficiencies to reduce expenses so that we can continue to provide the best possible education without significantly greater costs to our students.”

PRIVATE HIGHER ED. 

Private higher education has always faced financial challenges, according to Cid Seidelman, economics professor and former Westminster provost. 

Any increases in quality have to come with increases in expenses, according to Seidelman, so institutions have to come up with the money to cover the cost.

Private institutions, like Westminster, are generally more tuition-driven because it makes up the majority of revenue, Seidelman said. The competition of quality education between private institutions has inflated the price of education, leading to an increase in tuition.

As private higher education institutions across the nation struggle financially, Seidelman suggested that financial disclosure among such institutions could be a way to “communicate with students in terms of some of the challenges that we’re going through and why we have to take tuition up, or why we can’t award even greater amounts of financial aid.”

Financial transparency with students is pretty straightforward, Seidelman said. If an institution isn’t meeting its commitments to the welfare of its students, or it’s worried about community reaction, that institution is much less likely to be transparent. 

“It’s sort of like either you want to be transparent or you don’t,” he said. “If you’re making the investments in the right things, then, why can’t you share the information with a broader audience?” 

STUDENT PROTESTS

In past years, Westminster hasn’t publicly shared its budget with the student body. While this release isn’t completely public, it’s likely the college shared the report because of increased pressure for financial transparency in recent years. 

In the fall of 2019, Westminster announced an 8.5% tuition increase for the 2020-21 academic year. In response to the announcement, students organized and gathered to protest the approximate $3,000 hike. 

Faith Staley, a third-year justice studies major, helped organize the silent protest, as students lined the walkways to a scheduled faculty meeting in the Gore School of Business. Shortly after, Staley, along with other student organizers, created the Westminster Student Union (WSU), an independent organization dedicated to institutional change and community care. 

However, exactly why President Dobkin chose to release the budget overview to The Forum and ASW is largely unknown.

“I would love to think that WSU is part of the reason Dobkin is making that decision,” Staley said. “I mean we organized around tuition increases but a lot of that was based on not understanding or having access to information about where that money was actually going to be going.”

The issue of administrative transparency with students is at the forefront of what WSU aims to tackle, according to Staley — especially in regards to the financial expectations of a Westminster education. 

“We all know going to college is a financial investment that many of us will be paying off for many more years of our lives,” Staley said. “It’s such a significant decision and we’re paying so much that to not know where that money is going and to be asked to pay more without any real reasoning or information about how it’ll be used […] causes more distrust and frustration.”

ONGOING STUDENT CONCERNS

Students are largely supportive of President Dobkin’s step toward budget transparency. Despite their optimism, students say they still have questions the president’s disclosure fails to answer.

“The fact that they shared the financials with us shows us that they are transparent and honest about it,” said Mohamed Elmi, a third-year accounting student and the current ASW business senator. 

However, Elmi said he was still curious about how Westminster got into the position it’s in, pointing to the projected $6 million deficit for this year. 

“Even though they raised tuition, how is that still not covering it?” he said. “That’s all they talk about is, ‘Debt, debt, debt.’”

Elmi also spoke briefly on houses, property and real assets owned by the college, adding he was curious about what kind of revenue is generated by those. 

“They’re just going to talk about tuition and money that they get from donors,” Elmi said. “What about these other investments?”

Katie Perry, third-year psychology student, also supported the initial budget disclosure, but echoed Elmi’s request for specifics. 

“I would like to see more breakdowns of the utilities and where our money is going when it applies to housing,” Perry said. “I would also like to see a breakdown of where our money is going toward faculty because I really value how much of our money is going toward faculty.”

Perry reaffirmed the need for transparency and the ways it can build trust and accountability between Westminster College and its stakeholders.

“We all hear these stories and it paints a picture about the school,” Perry said. “And it might be a nice picture and it might be a really bad picture, depending on what stories we’re hearing. But if we could just be transparent and hear the direct story — ‘This is where all your funds are going’ — nobody can make up a story about this now.”

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