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Letter to the Editor: An Alum’s Response to Westminster’s Tuition Hike

Letter to the Editor: An Alum’s Response to Westminster’s Tuition Hike
The Black Bridge at Westminster College sits under a heavy snowfall in 2015. The photo was taken by Westminster alum Hannah Williams, who writes to the current student body that she is okay with the tuition increase, urging students to understand that it’s needed. (Photo courtesy: Hannah Williams)

I’m an alumna of Westminster College (’16), and I’m alarmed by several articles that reported an 8.5% tuition increase for the 2020–21 fiscal year.

I’m troubled, but not surprised, by the divisive tone of these stories. Discussions about money can send emotions flaring, and differences in class privilege and financial literacy make these conversations difficult. I hope my unique perspective on nonprofit budgets is useful to students, faculty, and administrators as discussions unfold.

First, to the students who may not be able to afford tuition next year: I’m so sorry. Financial stress is a real burden that affects every aspect of personal health. I hope you find peace during this tumultuous season. I hope the administration increases your financial aid package. I hope you graduate from Westminster, find a career you love, build your assets, and pay it forward.

Second, I’m compelled to write this story because I care about my alma matter; no one at the college even knows about this piece. I’m a beneficiary of Westminster’s discussion-based classes, mentorship programs, and dedicated faculty. My goals for this article are to dispel student fears, expand the conversation on campus, and set the stage for more collaborative solutions.

This leads to my controversial claim: I’m okay with the increase in tuition—universities need to make financial decisions to keep a balanced budget. As I understand it, the 8.5% tuition increase is a one-time, needed adjustment to correct for prior, artificially low tuition prices. It seems the administration’s intent is not to make this rate standard practice.

Now, to finance.

U.S. higher education institutions inherently have a high cost structure because the model for teaching students—one professor lecturing in front of a classroom—has stayed the same for centuries. Increasing class sizes or moving to an online modality may improve organizational efficiency, but it also decreases the quality of the learning experience, which goes against Westminster’s mission. In addition, inflation and aging infrastructure mean costs rise every year.

There are four main ways universities earn revenue: government grants, endowment income, tuition, and donations.

As a private institution, government grants are a smaller percentage of overall revenue than public schools like the University of Utah. While this may seem frustrating during periods of financial contraction, the lack of government grants ultimately frees Westminster to focus on learning, rather than credentialing.  

Endowments are built and maintained so nonprofits may live in perpetuity. It is difficult and risky to increase interest income from an endowment, so this stream of revenue largely remains flat.

Tuition is a complex topic that could have its own book. One of the most important aspects to note is that people are having less children, which means the pool of college applicants is shrinking. For small regional schools like Westminster, this trend results in lower enrollment and lower tuition revenue.

This leaves donations, or as many nonprofit professionals say, the difference between an average school and an exceptional school. For most universities, donations are the source of funding for new buildings, faculty research, and extracurricular programs like study abroad.

Westminster has a strong advancement office, but the negative and mislead public discourse surrounding liberal art schools, and especially the humanities, means fundraising is an uphill battle.

Therefore, I ask my fellow griffins to take three steps:

1. Talk to Advancement

Daniel Lewis, the Vice President for Advancement, heads the department.

Ask critical questions. How is affordability incorporated into the school’s case for support? Is there a fundraising campaign to support student access? What are the barriers to raising funds?

Then, see how you can help. Can you volunteer at admitted students day? Is the Alumni House accepting more student callers? Can you use your data science skills to help with prospect research? Where is a student voice most valuable?

2. Donate to Westminster

Hear me out: U.S. News & World Report uses student (and alumni!) support as metrics for school rankings. While the merits of school rankings are debatable, they matter to many donors, particularly folks at the major gift level. Your contribution could boost Westminster up on the list of regional schools, encouraging more people to give.

3. Push Yourself to Grow

Present your research at a conference. Write and perform a short play. Lead a volunteer project. Join the ranks of alumni who have received NIH grants, become CEOs, and published works of art. Your stories inspire giving and help donors trust that their dollars are being well spent. Your success is Westminster’s success.

I loved my time as an undergrad and, as an alumna, I care for my alma matter’s future. By taking a proactive step with the budget, Westminster can continue to provide a high caliber education, forming students into critical thinkers, compassionate listeners, and global citizens.

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Hannah Williams double majored in economics and finance at Westminster College. She served on the President’s Budget Advisory Committee and Investment Committee her senior year. Since graduation, she has worked as a grantmaker to nonprofits. Hannah is now completing her masters in nonprofit management at Columbia University.

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