Tuition changes are a regular part of college administration. However, with the national economic problems of 2020, how has Westmont’s tuition changed in response? Vice President for Finance Doug Jones gave answers about the most recent tuition increase going into effect during the 2021-22 school year. In the following interview, Jones also answered questions concerning the school’s changing financial obligations during the pandemic and how the administration has adapted to these changes.
Q: When was the recent tuition increase announced and why? How comparable is it to recent years?
DJ: The tuition increase for next fall was approved by the board of trustees at their meeting in late October. The timing was important because we needed to report to the California Student Aid Commission by the end of October for our charges for next year. Additionally, as prospective students consider Westmont and received their initial financial aid awards in late fall, it was helpful for them to see the total actual costs for next year. The tuition increase of 1%, with an overall increase in charges of 1.3%, is the smallest increase in 12 years since fall 2009. Increases since 2009 have averaged 3.4%.
Q: What makes an announcement like this different from recent years? Did you notice more interest in it because of the pandemic?
DJ: The college takes seriously the balance of affordability for students with financial sustainability of the college. Modest tuition increases over the past decade and increased funds for financial aid have helped with affordability, while also providing a small level of new resources to offset rising operating costs. With so much uncertainty and disruption over the past year, it was important to recommend an even lower increase for next fall in recognition of the range of ways the pandemic has impacted families.
Q: What was the thought process behind a partial housing refund in the beginning of the first semester when arrival was delayed? What was the student and parent response to this?
DJ: A commitment was made by the college during the summer that students would not be charged for room and board for any weeks when repopulation was not allowed by county or state health officials. Given so much general uncertainty caused by the pandemic, we wanted families to know fairly early on what they could expect if the college was not allowed to reopen on time. While we were hopeful for an on-time return to campus in August, during the summer we began working through a contingency plan to restructure the college’s overall budget in anticipation of realizing less revenue than we had planned. Room and board are important components of the college’s overall budget, so not having a portion of those funds ripples through the entire budget. In terms of student or parent response … it was overwhelmingly positive.
Q: What was it like balancing the demands of this school year in the midst of the pandemic? How different did this look, especially in the transformation of campus to ensure student safety?
DJ: In addition to the regular work of the college, last summer 150 faculty and staff worked on approximately 50 different task groups focused on educating and housing students, and generally operating the college, in the midst of a pandemic that has no clear end date. Nearly every facet of daily life at Westmont had to be reconsidered to ensure safety for students, faculty, and staff. Most of this work was done before the state issued its guidance on reopening higher education institutions, so that meant the task groups had to think through a number of possible scenarios, not knowing exactly which one the state or county would authorize. In the end, the immense planning effort paid off. While some plans had to be adjusted in real time as the academic year got underway, making those tweaks was much easier than had the planning not been done in the first place. Financially, we needed to adjust the operating budget down by nearly $10 million in light of additional expenses related to COVID-19 and reduced revenue coming into the college.
Q: How is the school looking to use tuition and other funds to better help students in the midst of COVID-19?
DJ: The college is committed to providing a safe educational and living environment every year. The commitment is the same this year, but the circumstances are certainly much different. We are on track to spend $2.5 million this year to enhance safety during this time of COVID. Testing, tents for classes and dining, technology upgrades, cleaning supplies, physical changes to campus, and an increased campus safety presence are just some of the ways the college’s budget has been reallocated to use student dollars differently this year in response to COVID.
Q: Did Westmont’s return to campus make decisions about tuition and the cost of housing easier or harder to make? Why or why not?
DJ: Returning to campus in September indirectly made the decision about next year’s tuition increase easier. That is, had students not been allowed to return for a much longer period this year or not at all, there would have been a ripple effect into next year’s budget that might have caused us to make a different decision about the tuition increase. Thankfully, that was not something we needed to consider.
Clarifying why these changes to tuition have been made, Jones said that handling the implications of the pandemic was tricky at times, but reaffirmed the school’s aim of putting the needs of families first.