In February 2020, the Board of Trustees gathered on campus for the Winter Board Meetings. Traditionally, it is at these meetings that the board approves the budget for the coming fiscal year — but not this time around.
President Kathy Murray explained the Board’s decision to delay budget approval in an email to the Whitman community on Feb. 26.
“This year, given new levels of uncertainty in the national landscape for college admissions, the Cabinet decided not to bring a full budget to the Board for its approval,” Murray said in her email. “While we have over 5000 applications for admission, an almost 3% increase in a year when the number of high school graduates has dropped, our number of early decision admits is down slightly and the discount rate on that group is higher than our target. We just don’t know what to make of these mixed signals, and it is too early in our regular decision admission process to have real clarity.”
In an email correspondence with The Wire, Vice President for Enrollment and Communications Josh Jensen explained that although Whitman continues to have a strong number of applicants, liberal arts institutions across the country are experiencing similar uncertainties with future admission numbers.
“At this moment in history, interest in liberal arts colleges and rural colleges is at a low point. This makes recruiting students more difficult,” Jensen said. “All colleges that work primarily with traditional-aged college students are facing a declining population among that age group, which means there are fewer students overall to fill seats.”
Despite these uncertainties, supportive responses have come from all corners of the Whitman community that aim to uphold the ideals of the liberal arts.
“The faculty are constantly strengthening an already excellent liberal arts education. We are working to raise funds that will help make Whitman more affordable for all families,” Jensen said, “and our excellent admission team is doing incredible outreach to prospective students and families to tell the Whitman story. It takes all of us working together to address these big challenges.”
In addition to the general ambiguity of the future of liberal arts institutions, the decision to move classes online in light of developments of the COVID-19 outbreak adds to the mounting unpredictability. Online distance-learning not only obscures an understanding of the timeline for budget approval, but also influences the admission process and enrollment for the class of 2024. Jensen explains how the admission team is adapting to these unusual circumstances.
“It is too early to fully understand the enrollment impact for the class of 2024, but we anticipate that COVID-19 will make this year more challenging,” Jensen said. “We are moving our admission events for this spring online and using creative ways to reach out to admitted students. We know that these replacements aren’t going to be the same as having students visit Whitman in person, but we are hopeful that we can help students and families feel comfortable — and excited about — choosing Whitman by providing as much information as is possible.”
Joe Davis, the vice-chair for Whitman’s Board of Trustees, described that this is not the first time budget approval has been delayed — a preceding postponement occurred in the early 1990s — but that the delay still holds serious consequences.
“The most significant repercussion of delaying budget approval is that Whitman’s staff will have a bit less time to plan for the coming year. As a trade-off, delaying budget approval gives us the flexibility we need to learn more about the moment we are in and gives us greater flexibility to respond appropriately,” Davis said in an email to The Wire. “Right now the coronavirus makes it difficult to know when the budget will be finalized. I’m hopeful that by May we will have a better understanding of the trajectory of the virus and how it may impact our financial and operational situation in the coming year. But if this stretches on, we will need to be flexible and creative about many things, including the budget.”
In light of the necessary improvisation, Davis expressed the Board’s devotion to Whitman’s goals and missions as a liberal arts college.
“Whitman’s strategic plan, which was developed collaboratively between faculty, staff, students, alumni and trustees, is our guiding document as we look to the future. It reaffirms that Whitman will remain a residential liberal arts college,” Davis said. “We are fortunate to be an exceptionally well-managed college from a financial perspective, and that will serve us well as we weather a period of uncertainty. Looking forward, I imagine [the board] will continue to respond in a way that is collaborative, bringing the best thinking together from across the college.”
President Murray reflected the same sentiments in her email.
“We made this decision from a position of financial strength and stability and a desire to maintain that strength and stability,” Murray said in her email. “You have heard me say many times that I am the beneficiary of decades of responsible and thoughtful financial management at this college. I believe that delaying the approval of next year’s budget for a few months continues that tradition of responsible management.”