By Nina Kegelman || Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 17, the Budget Priorities Committee held a Forum on the College Budget in the Boncheck Lecture Hall during Uncommon Hour. Led primarily by Bennet Helm, Chair of Philosophy/NSP, and Paul Mutone, Vice President of the Office of Finance and Administration, the forum was open to the entire F&M community. Though the auditorium was packed with attendees, most were faculty and staff while few students were present.
Helm began by noting that the college is in fact in a better place now than it was years ago in terms of the realization of the goals listed in the mission statement. These goals include having a diverse and high quality student body, being an academically innovative institution, maintaining and creating community spaces, and having a committed faculty of distinction. F&M has notable strengths that meet these goals, seeking and enrolling great students from a variety of backgrounds, incorporating a College House System, having a AA- credit ranking, and maintaining a rigorous curriculum.
However, the path the college is on, unfortunately, is not a sustainable one, Helm revealed. The Budget Priorities Committee recognizes the need to create a more transparent process of communicating information surrounding the college’s budget and priorities and are actively seeking ways to do so. This forum was the beginning of such a solution.
The 2018 revenue budget is about 124.6 million dollars and is supported largely by the cost of tuition, room, and board, which makes up over 70% of F&M’s financial resources. The endowment, gifts, private contributions, and other sources of income make up the minority of the revenue. 63% of the college’s expenses go towards personnel via salaries, wages, and benefits for faculty and staff. Other main expenses include the cost of operating, maintenance, and debt service. Specific challenges arise between the revenue and the expense budgets.
Starting with revenue, a main concern is the increase of tuition. As many F&M students already know there is an expected increase in tuition for the coming year, which is part of a trend of increase in recent years. However, Helm pointed out that without this increase, the college would lose approximately 2.1 million needed dollars. Another problem is the college’s tendency to draw too heavily from the school’s endowment, using about 6% of this revenue when the recommended percentage is about 4.5%. While the college has succeeded in increasing revenue earned through fundraising as a result of a recently launched “capital campaign,” the steadily rising cost of tuition and strain on the endowment threaten the school’s economic stability.
Problems with expenses, on the other hand, also make evident a difficult financial situation. First, after being compared to that of other top 50 liberal arts colleges in the country, the salaries of F&M faculty are below the median with an increasing gap each year. At the same time, it is difficult to evaluate whether staff are being compensated properly due to a lack of similar data as a reference point. This means that the faculty are being underpaid, while the college has essentially no benchmark to determine whether other staff, like librarians, athletic directors, and maintenance workers, are being paid fairly. The college also wishes to maintain a level of financial aid of up to 49% discounted tuition in line with the initiative to seek high quality, diverse students. Mutone emphasized a lurking issue of deferred maintenance, as well, stressing that the college has not been allocating enough of its resources over time towards repairs and upkeep of the grounds. This adds up dramatically to a backlog of about 135 million dollars worth of lacking funds for emergency repairs or maintenance.
Helm finished by underscoring the need for greater, more inclusive community participation in the dissemination of this information and cooperation in finding solutions, as there is a growing need to determine the college’s priorities in order to address coming challenges. An online suggestion box will be available soon so as to reach more members of the community for proposals about both budget issues and ways to make these decisions more inclusive.
After the budget presentation, Helm opened up the meeting up for questions and discussion. Some faculty spoke wanting to clarify that the budget challenges the college is currently facing did not arise in a vacuum, but were the result of the pursuing of certain strategies and tradeoffs that were unfortunately made without much participation from the wider community. One student noted that despite being the primary source of the college’s revenue, students were vastly underrepresented at this meeting and in the decision-making process. Evidently, more work needs to be done in order to reach students and bring this discussion to them. The heavy reliance on tuition to fund the school is also questionable, as enrollment can be quite unpredictable. Even a slight error in the projected first-year enrollment could result in dramatic consequences for the school’s revenue over four years.
Going forward, there is concern over the extent to which these budget challenges will impede any innovative efforts for the coming president. How the college will reconcile its idealistic and equalizing mission with the current strain on its resources has yet to be explored, but strong interest and participation demonstrated with this forum is certainly a step in the right direction.
First-year Nina Kegelman is a staff writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.