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A Diamond, Back From the Rough

After tough financial setbacks, William Jewell College rebounded thanks to tighter spending, revised investment strategies, and a creative student retention program.

By Joe Dysart

Indeed, the Liberty, Missouri-based Baptist institution was rated the number one “best bargain” among independent colleges in The Princeton Review’s “Best 357 Colleges” for fall 2004. It also placed among the Review ’s “Top 10 Best Value Colleges” in Princeton’s complementary guide to higher learning.

“It’s interesting to note that Princeton’s number one ‘best value’ costs about $40,000 a year,” says Ned Harris, Jewell’s vice president for enrollment. “Jewell’s tuition, fees, and room and board for the 2004-05 academic year were less than $23,000.” Adds Robert Franek, vice president for publishing at The Princeton Review, “In a nutshell, the ‘Top 10 Best Value Colleges’ names schools that we believe offer outstanding academics and enroll good students who are happy with the education they are receiving. Additionally—and more importantly—it names schools in which students do not have to mortgage their futures to pay for their education.”

Quite a change for an institution that looked bleak at the turn of the millennium. By 2000, day enrollment had dropped to 1,150 and would drop again to 1,089 the following year—a trend that was both disappointing and alarming, considering that 1990 enrollment had been at 1,477. Tough times had also forced financial officers to draw $8.8 million from the college’s endowment to cover expenses for 1999-2000— nearly twice as much as Jewell could really afford. The dot-com crash dealt the college additional, excruciating losses, erasing $7.2 million from its endowment in 2001 and another $5.2 million in 2002.

Trimming and Tightening

Resources

Check out these additional articles from NACUBO about small college financial turnarounds:

  • “Financial About-Face,” by Debra M. Murphy and Susan K. Tellier, July 2004 Business Officer
  • “Stopping a Downward Spiral,” by Lynne B. O’Toole, September 2004 Online Exclusive (www.nacubo.org)

Something had to give if the college was to survive in a form still recognizable to alumni. “We realized we had to make some substantial cuts on the expense side, and we began with staff positions,” says David Sallee, Jewell’s president. Those came during 2001-03, when the college cut approximately 40 staff positions. Though difficult, the reductions went a long way to stop the hemorrhaging. “Some positions had to be eliminated. But we were able to handle other cuts through attrition or by moving some people around,” Sallee says.

Meanwhile, program budgets were subjected to the same glare of austerity. For three years beginning in 2000, Sallee essentially held the line on program budgets, approving no significant increases and ensuring that no funds were frittered away on optional infrastructure improvements. “When it came to program budgets during those three years, we were very disciplined,” he says.

Like many institutions left staggering from the NASDAQ crash, Jewell also decided to take a hard look at its endowment investment strategy. In the past, the college had been able to draw prudently from modest, annual stock market profits on its endowment while preserving the principal. But after the crash of 2000, all the rules changed. “We decided to hire an endowment consultant to evaluate our investment strategy and, as a result, our investments are much more diversified now,” Sallee says. Ron Dempsey, vice president for finance and administration, agrees: “Before, our allocation was spread over five different investment styles and sectors. Today we have 11 different allocations, including small and midcap stocks, more exposure to international investments, and diversification in the international sector—large cap, small cap, and emerging markets. Our current investment consultant also has much more capacity for research and monitoring of investment managers.”

Jewell also looked to its students for help. Sallee realized that by burnishing Jewell’s reputation for academic excellence, declining enrollment could be reversed. So the college challenged its students to try harder, reach higher, and compete neck-in-neck with other college students at the national level.

“In the past five years, we have tried very hard to help our students prepare for prestigious fellowship and scholarship competitions and prepare to present research at national meetings,” Sallee says. “It is my experience that students don’t tend to think about these opportunities and don’t think they are capable of competing at that level.”

Jewell changed that mindset and has reaped the rewards. “Our students have received a Marshall Scholarship, two Goldwater Scholarships, and two Truman Scholarships, and two students have been recognized in USA Today’s All-American student edition,” Sallee says. “They are starting to believe that they can be competitive with students from the institutions that are generally considered the best in America.”

Student Guidance Garners Attention

In the midst of all the financial and academic retooling, a little luck came Jewell’s way. Time magazine named the institution “Liberal Arts College of the Year” for 2001-02, and suddenly the name “William Jewell” was on the lips of many high school seniors. “To have such recognition can make a huge difference in enrollment and the level of interest that others have in the college,” Sallee says. “And the faculty were of course excited to have received such strong endorsement of their work. Students were excited, but probably not as much as faculty and administration. In fact, they became kind of weary of us talking about it.”

Sallee says one of the primary reasons Time singled out Jewell for such prestigious recognition was the college’s innovative mentor program. While most colleges have an orientation program designed to help freshmen make a smooth transition from high school, as Time discovered, Jewell’s orientation is in a class of its own. Every freshman, for example, is afforded as many as five college contacts—two staff members and three upperclassmen—who monitor the student’s progress during the first year and volunteer as a shoulder to lean on when need be.

The welcoming process begins even before freshmen arrive on campus, with a friendly letter from a student mentor that’s sent out before new recruits complete their last year of high school. Several more letters are written to incoming fresh men over the summer. Parents are also contacted to enable a mentor to better understand what kind of emotional baggage a new recruit may be bringing into freshman year. Are there problems paying tuition? Does the new student have any specific fears regarding the tuition? What’s the new recruit’s favorite meal? Student mentors bone up on all such information as the summer wears on, and they generally have a pretty good idea of who they’ll be meeting—and how they can help those newcomers—when freshmen show up at the ivy halls for their first go-round.

Freshmen and mentors engage in some touch-feely exercises, such as the abstract, team-building drills popular these days at top corporations. Granted, some of the new recruits cajoled into the role-playing games probably feel a little silly s winging on ropes simply to deliver a glass of water to a fellow team member. And they probably realize they’re not going to win any awards for coolness while flopping around on a tarp with a group of their peers to achieve a group goal. But that’s precisely the point, according to Jewell’s mentors. They want the freshmen to loosen up and not take themselves too seriously.

Of course, given Jewell’s spiritual underpinnings, the mentor program also makes sure that every incoming student has a “shepherd,” or upperclassman who is tasked with offering spiritual guidance to the freshman. In practical terms, this can translate into something a simple as helping a freshman study for an exam. But a shepherd is also the person to whom a freshman can turn to pray with or to kick around the “meaning of life” questions that are the hallmark of the developing adult.

In addition, Jewell augments this shepherding with a required seminar called “The Responsible Self.” Freshmen pore over world-view challenging texts like the “Bhagavad-Gita” and John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty.” And the students get to work on self-identity questions in the classroom rather than down at the neighborhood bar.

The college is constantly tweaking its mentoring program and has decided to add more innovative twists for the coming academic year. “Many of the retention and student-monitoring techniques employed in the First Year Experience have been extended to encompass the Sophomore Year Experience, which will be launched this fall,” Sallee says. “Jewell has also added a new multicultural director to help with programming, recruiting, student needs, and retention for minority students.” Such students can also look forward to a special multicultural reception that Jewell has added to its orientation weekend, where they’ll be hooked up with a minority mentor.

A Bright Outlook

The financial belt-tightening, rethinking of the endowment investment strategy, and fine-tuning of a student retention strategy have paid off. Freshman-to-sophomore retention rates at the college are now at about 80 percent. Daytime enrollment in 2004, coming in at 1,310, was the highest in a decade. “And we’re back to where we want to be with our withdrawals from the endowment, down to an average of $4 million a year,” Sallee says. “Plus our net revenue has improved substantially— up from $8 million for the 2001-02 year to $12 million for the 2004-05 year.”

In fact, Jewell’s newfound stability and renewed growth have been so confidence-building, the college now finds that it’s able to take new financial challenges in stride without dashing for the intensive care unit. In 2004, for example, the college severed its relationship with the Missouri Baptist Convention—which had been donating $1 million annually to William Jewell—rather than allowing the convention to exert more direct control over the college. Essentially, the convention wanted to step in and call the shots at Jewell, and the college said no. “We refused their request to elect our board, and they ended the relationship,” Sallee says. “We knew that would be the outcome if we refused their request.”

Share Your Turnaround Story
Did your institution employ an innovative approach to recover from hard times?
Contact Carole Schweitzer at carole.schweitzer@nacubo.org with your insights.

With the nail-biting days of financial turmoil a fading memory, Sallee now has the luxury of looking at Jewell’s future, where he sees great promise. He thinks a student-retention rate near 90 percent is a reasonable, achievable goal. He sees enrollment ballooning even larger, to say 1,475 day students. And he’s looking to bring in annual revenues of $32 million, which would represent an increase of 35 percent. “To be honest, I sometimes get a little uneasy about participating in so many stories about our success,” says Sallee. “But it is a good story about a college that has a solid future.”

Author Bio Joe Dysart, Thousand Oaks, California, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.
E-mail joedysart@aol.com