Students at Wittenberg say the more than 600 incoming freshman that will be on campus this fall shows the school is making efforts to increase attendance.

Record freshman class, giving follows hard year at Wittenberg

Wittenberg University — one of Springfield’s major employers — will see the highest number of incoming freshmen in more than a decade and had record donations after a chaotic year that included multimillion dollar budget cuts and the president’s departure.

More than 615 students will start their freshman year at Wittenberg this month and the school raised more than $9.1 million in fundraising efforts in fiscal year 2016, leadership said.

“We’re better today than we were yesterday, but we’re not as good as we need to be tomorrow so we’re still working to that end,” Interim President Dick Helton said.

Wittenberg has about 475 employees and an estimated $70 million economic impact on Springfield.

>>MORE INFO: Wittenberg to cut $6.5M

The uptick in students and strong alumni giving should pave the way for more growth at Wittenberg, Helton said

The Wittenberg class of 2020 will be the largest number of freshman the university has seen since 2002, Executive Director of Admission Karen Hunt said.

“We’re thrilled — that’s a big class for us,” Hunt said.

The university draws a good number of students from Clark County and the Miami Valley, she said. Students from 30 states and 16 international students will round out the large incoming class.

Clark County native and senior accounting major Daniel Myers, 21, said he’s not surprised more students enrolled in Wittenberg.

“When I was a freshman, we were the biggest class and every year since then, the freshman class at Wittenberg has been the biggest freshman class,” he said.

Wittenberg is reaping the efforts its made in recent years to begin communicating with prospective students during their sophomore year of high school, Hunt said.

The school’s advertisement of a $40 million athletic complex project — that includes upgrades to historic athletic building and new facilities — was a draw for many incoming students, admissions leaders said.

>>RELATED: Wittenberg awarded $375K tourism grant for athletics complex

“Wittenberg’s always attracted a good number of student athletes,” Hunt said, adding that at least a third of incoming students expressed interest in athletics teams on campus or health and wellness programs.

The health and wellness facility project on campus was also a big part in the university’s efforts to surpass its fundraising goals, Vice President for Advancement Wendy Kobler said.

“It’s an exciting initiative, not only for the students but for the alumni,” Kobler said.

More than $26 million in private donations and tax credits have already been collected toward the renovation and building project.

It was originally projected to cost about $30 million, but is now expected come in at about $40.5 million, project planners have said.

The high enrollment and giving follow what leaders acknowledge was a tough year.

The university announced plans to cut $6.5 million and weeks later then President Laurie Joyner abruptly stepped down half way through a semester.

>>READ MORE: Unanswered questions remain in Wittenberg president’s resignation

>>CLOSER LOOK: Wittenberg names interim president

Helton started as interim president in January and said both he and the Wittenberg board hope to find a permanent replacement by July 2017.

The plan to cut $6.5 million came close to its goal, Vice President of Finance and Administration Randy Freebourn said, but in the end was about $1 million short.

“We made a goal of a cash-flow, balanced budget by the end of the year,” Freebourn said.

Several steps were taken to achieve the cuts, including the elimination of retiree health and life insurance benefits at the end of 2015 and changes to current employee benefits. Some current and former employees were upset by the changes.

>>RELATED STORY: Wittenberg retirees upset by benefit loss

Restructuring about $45 million in school debt also saved money, Freebourn said, with lower interest rates and more cash flow for the school, he said.

“The more money that gets to stay into our endowment, then it earns more for the future and helps the budget also in the future,” he said.

No programs or faculty positions were eliminated last year as initially proposed in the cuts, Freebourn said, because the decision-making process came to a halt.

But eliminating certain programs could happen this year or the school could look to new programs, such as the Master’s of Analytics program that will start this fall, to make up the money, he said.

The big freshman class could also mean up to an extra $500,000 the school will bring in this year that budget planners didn’t account for, Freebourn said.

Extra room and board and tuition fees will help the school and is all part of the extra revenue streams financial planners at the university are working to create.

“The board know we have a revenue problem not an expense problem,” Freebourn said.

On the horizon for the school still lies challenges of finances and replacing it’s leader, but also the hope that the school is moving in the right direction.

The Wittenberg board should come to a decision within the next month to hire a firm to lead the presidential search, Helton said.

“While I enjoy my work and I’m enjoying Wittenberg University, I also think it’s important for the institution to have a full-time president — someone who identifies with Wittenberg University, helps move the university forward,” he said.

But his time in the president’s office isn’t idle, he said. He and other senior leaders are in a strategic planning process that will lead Wittenberg into the future, even if the school isn’t lead by Helton.

“Maintaining where we were as an institution wasn’t an option,” he said.

An important part of that future is continued growth in enrollment, Helton said.

“We have every reason to believe that the success this year will help lead to success in the next year and the next couple of cycles,” Hunt said.

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