Setting Tuition

I recently sent a letter to parents and families about Wellesley’s comprehensive fee increase for next year. I thought that readers of this blog might like to see this letter, too. I am proud of the fact that Wellesley is taking a new and strong position in this area. Despite our still severe economic problems, we decided on a tuition increase that was the lowest in 15 years.

Dear Parents,

At this time of year, I like to write to you with a report on the comprehensive fee for the next academic year. In the years following the economic crisis, and because of it, I have also used this opportunity to tell you something about our financial and budgetary issues.

I want to begin this year’s letter by assuring you that we remain firmly committed to providing an excellent liberal arts education that is also affordable. I am acutely aware that over the past several decades, the cost of college in our country has increased considerably more than inflation. Unless this trend is checked, college tuition in this country will soon outstrip the capacity of all but the most wealthy. All higher education institutions must carefully reconcile their expenses with the financial needs of the public. It is not an easy task. At Wellesley, the average net cost (allowing for financial aid) has increased at a slower, but still substantial, rate. With affordability forefront in our mind, we must also consider the yearly operating budget increases that are essential for the College to thrive and compete. Our goal, as always, is to continue to provide the exceptional opportunities that are fundamental to the Wellesley experience, while realistically understanding and considering the needs of our families. That is why we have made the deliberate decision not to allow the College’s fiscal challenges—stemming from the economic crisis—to drive the way we set tuition. This requires careful planning and consideration.

Wellesley College remains committed to continuing our investment in the key institutional priorities that define our educational model: preserving our core academic program, allowing for enhanced quality; maintaining our need-blind admission program; and continuing to support our financial aid policy of meeting the full need of students who qualify. These investments through the years have paid off handsomely, and have made us one of the best liberal arts colleges in the world. Indeed, our institutional priorities are expensive but essential tasks.

Given this context, the Board of Trustees voted at its January meeting to raise the 2011-12 comprehensive fee by the smallest percentage increase in more than 15 years: $1,300, or 2.5 percent, for a total of $53,250. In setting the fee, we carefully weighed a number of factors, including our institutional priorities, the College’s financial position, and the current economic conditions that might affect families’ ability to meet the costs. This level of tuition increase will enable Wellesley to continue to invest wisely to support our institutional priorities and simultaneously respond to the financial concerns of Wellesley students and their families.

As you know, tuition is just one source—albeit an important one—of our revenue. Like many colleges, we also fund a substantial portion of our annual operating budget from our endowment. Wellesley continues to experience some challenges from the decline of the endowment in 2008-09. The external markets have begun to show positive signs, but the College’s five-year financial planning model indicates operating budget deficits through fiscal year 2016. We have balanced next year’s budget, as we do every year, thanks to the continuing internal planning efforts to manage prudently the College’s spending and priorities.

I recognize and appreciate the important decision you and your daughter made in selecting Wellesley College and to be a part of our wonderfully vibrant and diverse community. You value the importance of an exceptional liberal arts education, and we remain committed to providing such an education for future generations of bright, talented, deserving young women, all of whom will make a needed difference in the world.

Trustees in the Snow

The start of the spring semester has been one of the snowiest on record and yet even the mountains of snow can’t quash the palpable energy always on campus. As this semester gets underway, I am reflecting on our recent Trustees meetings.

At the end of January, our Trustees convened on campus for several days. Our time spent together was both informative and productive, and I thought the discussions reflected the good forward momentum on campus.

There are several items from those meetings that I want to highlight.

EBURS. By now you have probably heard a little about the process we are using to organize our comprehensive facilities planning, a process which we call EBURS  (Evaluate Building Utilization and Renovation Strategies). A steering committee is reviewing prior reports on facilities and current programmatic needs laying the groundwork for a comprehensive planning process. This steering committee is led jointly by Provost Andy Shennan and Andy Evans, Vice President for Finance and Treasurer. The steering committee will be forming small, multi-constituent project teams, which will further develop the principles that will shape the priorities in their areas for building and renovation on campus. The Trustees will be involved in this process, and they are enthusiastic about it.

Residential Life. At the Trustee meetings, there was a discussion of the importance of community and residential life. Several students joined us for this lively discussion on the value of residential life at Wellesley. Not surprisingly, the resounding theme was that Wellesley’s residence halls foster a strong sense of community and encourage friendships and connections that might not otherwise be made. As we consider residence hall renovation as part of EBURS, the points made in this discussion will be useful.

Tenure. We also had an in-depth discussion with the Trustees about tenure and our rigorous tenure process. It is important for the Trustees to understand why tenure is crucial to the academy, since they officially grant tenure as one of their major responsibilities. I thought Faculty Trustee Jim Kloppenberg, the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard, was particularly helpful in guiding the Trustees’ appreciation of the tenure process and its value to higher education.

Separate from that discussion, the Trustees voted to approve the tenure appointments of six faculty members: Rebecca Bedell (Art), Bryan Burns (Classical Studies), Sealing Cheng (Women’s and Gender Studies), Donald Elmore (Chemistry), Robin McKnight (Economics), and Ismar Volić (Math). Congratulations to all on this career milestone!

Tuition. There was also an intensive and thorough discussion of next year’s tuition, and tuition-setting in general. There are many factors that affect the setting of tuition. The Trustees approved a 2.5 percent increase in our comprehensive fee. This decision to increase tuition only modestly was influenced by our recognition of low rates of inflation, but was primarily driven by our historical commitment to affordability and our awareness of the economic difficulties many students and their families are experiencing.

Admission. At the Board meeting, I also updated the Trustees on our excellent pool of applicants for the incoming class. Just over 4,400 women applied for a spot in the Class of 2015, a 2 percent increase over last year. Additionally, there was an 18 percent increase over last year in early decision applications. Of particular note, the geographic diversity of our applicants is consistently strong—among both international and domestic students. This good news reflects the focused outreach efforts of our Admission team, as well as alumnae and students who have worked to enhance the College’s visibility. Specifically, we have seen increases in applications from the West/Northwest, South, and mid-Atlantic regions of the country.

This was a long entry, but a lot goes on at Trustee meetings—I didn’t even cover it all! I will return to EBURS for updates in future blogs, and will branch out into many other topics, as well.