The good news for Wittenberg University is that its freshman class is 584 students strong. That’s 63 more than last fall, 44 more than budget and worth celebrating, said President Laurie Joyner, because “we outperformed 80 percent” of the competition.
The more sobering news is that to reach the number certified on Friday the 13th of September, Wittenberg had to offer deeper discounts of its tuition, cutting the net amount of money collected from each student in order to bring them to campus.
Discounting is a major reason Moody’s Investors Services cited in yet again downgrading the university’s bond rating this summer, despite what it called “relatively healthy donor support and commitment from a new (university) management team to balance the operating budget by 2017.”
In lowering the bond rate to Ba2 with a negative outlook, “they’re saying one year doesn’t make a trend,” Joyner said.
She knows because she met with Moody’s representatives over the summer to brief them on the university’s continuing plans to put itself on a sustainable financial footing.
One measure of Joyner’s assessment of what that will take came in a online Town Hall meeting this month when she called it “more of a seven- to 10-year” project, not something to be accomplished in the five-year blocks in which she usually considers her career.
The fundamental reason, she said, is expressed in the same tuition discounting problem that led Moody’s to announce last year it has a negative outlook for all of higher education.
“It is the big danger for the entire education world right now,” Joyner said. “That’s what everybody is struggling with.”
Joyner said to get its larger class, Wittenberg’s tuition discount increased from last fall’s 54.2 percent to close to 60 percent, taking money from its savings to make that possible.
“You’re hoping you get as much as you can,” she told the Town Hall audience. “Because of the weak national economy, even families with the ability to pay … have less willingness to pay.”
Given that Wittenberg gets roughly 80 percent of its income from tuition, “it’s a scary picture,” she said.
Adding to Wittenberg’s challenge are problems in advancement, the department charged with raising money.
Although Joyner said Wittenberg’s core product, teaching and learning, is “every bit as strong as I expected,” she has found “very surprising” the scope of problems in advancement.
Relying on what she calls the department’s “strong bench strength,” she has delayed hiring a new leader because “I can’t position someone for success” until changes are made.
All this is likely to add greater urgency to the university’s efforts to reorganize its core educational programs and add offerings through it School of Community Education that can bring in more income.
A planned bachelor’s of nursing completion program is moving along, she said. “Last I heard, there was a possibility we would have students as early as January. What I suspect is more realistic is the fall of 2014.”
Other programs, including certificate programs, also will developed with one goal in mind: adding new sources of revenue that will help Wittenberg grow out of a financial pinch Joyner said cannot be addressed with cuts alone.
Even the $5 million of savings identified through a painful process last year will be attacked by costs that will continue to rise just to sustain remaining programs.
Joyner said she would even consider programs not traditionally associated with universities to generate money that will help ease the bottom line.
Joyner briefed Moody’s personnel on the university’s plans this year to:
• Create an innovation task force to brainstorm about new programs and approaches to other issues.
• Establish an integrated planning and budgeting program that can more directly identify and grow programs that might attract more students and bolster income;
• Launch an initiative to help students get as much they can from their combined academic and extra-curricular activities to show families shopping for schools the “value proposition” of a Wittenberg education.
Another priority — increasing alumni participation and donations — will be particularly crucial during this time, said Joyner, because the annual budget will continue to be under pressure.
“I get that people are a little shaken” by the university’s challenges, she said, and while contributions to the annual fund would be most helpful, “what is always a real safe area to go to is scholarships.”
Scholarship helps ease the problem created by tuition discounting by taking the place of money that otherwise would have to come from university savings.
As Joyner said when she announced this summer the prospects of a larger freshman class, its arrival after a difficult year only gave the university a chance to catch its breath.