By Emily Brandler Proffitt, '05
Higher education in America is experiencing a watershed moment. Americans have long placed faith in institutions of higher learning and in the value of a college degree, but for many, that confidence has begun to erode in recent years. Prospective students and their parents, coping with stagnant or shrinking incomes due to a turbulent economy, are wondering if and how they will be able to afford an increasingly expensive college education. Amid stubbornly high unemployment rates, many college grads are facing a dreary job market and a pile of student loans and are questioning whether college was worth the investment.
Higher-education leaders, meanwhile, are grappling with how they will continue to provide the high-quality education the public has come to expect at the increasingly affordable prices they demand, even as these institutions face their own financial pressures. These leaders must also tackle issues including how to make college accessible to an ever-diverse student population and how best to prepare their students for a constantly changing world.
The Whitworth community is not immune to these issues. But neither is it stymied by them. To find out more about the challenges confronting colleges and universities across the U.S. and how Whitworth is rising to meet them, we spoke to three Whitworthians who live and work at the front lines of higher education: President Beck A. Taylor, Director of Admissions Marianne Hansen, '97, and Alicia Peebles, a senior biology major from Tacoma, Wash.
Beck A. Taylor
Q. How do budgets and policies being discussed at the state and national levels affect Whitworth? How are we responding to these challenges?
BT It's a common misperception that private independent universities like Whitworth are unaffected by state and federal public finance. Our students benefit directly from state and federal financial aid programs. For example, as much as $2.4 million in State Need Grants to 355 Whitworth students were in jeopardy during this Washington state legislative session. And important federal programs such as the Pell Grant and Stafford Loan are under continual scrutiny. These possible reductions and changes could hurt Whitworth's neediest students and could seriously impede the university's goal of providing access to students from across the family-income spectrum.
I've spent time in Olympia and Washington, D.C., talking with the governor and our federal and state delegations about the importance of investing in a college education for our citizens. Whitworth is also budgeting more institutional financial aid than ever before: More than $29 million in tuition dollars has been reallocated back to students and families in 2011-12. Our students are leading on this issue as well. Junior Macy Olivas heads Whitworth's chapter of Students for Educational Reform, and she has traveled the country lobbying on behalf of our students. Her leadership has been inspirational to me.
The state-level budget cuts also are rapidly closing the gap between public and private tuition. State universities have historically operated on a relatively low-tuition, low-financial-aid model. Private institutions like Whitworth have operated on a relatively high-tuition, high-financial-aid model. As state funding has diminished, Washington's public universities have had to raise their tuition dramatically -- approximately 35 percent in just the past two years. So a Whitworth education is looking increasingly affordable to many families. And when you add the relational culture and small class sizes we offer, the Whitworth experience becomes even more attractive.
In addition, President Obama recently stated that he is "putting higher education on notice." His State of the Union address this year included many positive actions for students -- like lowering student loan interest rates and extending tax credits for higher education. However, I worry about his suggestion about forms of federal regulation that could tie mandated institutional measures of performance to institutional access to federal aid for students. Our experience in education has been that one-size-fits-all regulations simply do not offer the range of remedies needed to address an increasingly diverse set of colleges and universities, not to mention the diversity of students and families at those institutions. The good news is that Whitworth would likely stand out as an over-achiever on most, if not all, of the scorecard measures -- like retention rates -- that are being suggested by the administration.
Q. What other pressing higher-education issues require Whitworth's attention?
BT First, I would say that Whitworth must remain true to its founding mission to provide a mind-and-heart education. Our mission calls us to combine an intellectually rigorous education with an education that embraces the idea that Christian faith matters. In a society that is being pulled to the extremes on so many issues of importance, Whitworth offers a place for thoughtful people who reject today's pitiful standards for civil discourse. Protecting that unique mission is both a pressing challenge and my highest responsibility as president.
Another pressing challenge is managing the complexities of the higher-education economic model. Much has been written recently about the increasing costs of higher education, and rightly so. The reality is that prospective parents and students expect the best -- the best faculty, the best programs, the best facilities, the best opportunities -- and the best is very expensive. Most of Whitworth's annual operating budget, about 80 percent, is allocated to personnel. Any employer will tell you that personnel costs are skyrocketing, and they are the root cause for the increase in tuition at universities like Whitworth. But what's the alternative? Talk to any prospective student, or any alum, and they will tell you that what makes Whitworth special are the small classes and high student-faculty interaction. Colleges that begin to cut investments in personnel almost immediately begin to see a decline in quality, and then a decline in enrollment. That would be disastrous for us. So we are continuing to find money-saving efficiencies in our business processes and squeezing out costs that are not core to our educational quality. Finally, we remain committed to working with parents and students from across the economic spectrum by returning many of the tuition dollars we receive to our students in the form of institutional aid, which is the second-largest expense category for the university. We need to be more creative, and I am confident that Whitworth is up to the task.
Finally, in difficult economic times, students are expecting more from their college diplomas in terms of employment and preparedness for an increasingly competitive labor market. As part of the Whitworth 2021 vision and strategic plan, Whitworth is recommitting to preparing students to succeed after graduation, whether in graduate school or in employment. That said, we must also remember that the value of a liberal arts education isn't just about developing job skills; it's also about educating students to become thoughtful and informed citizens. Maintaining a healthy balance between the objectives of a liberal arts education and preparing our graduates for vocational employment will be paramount as we develop curriculum and opportunities for our students in the years ahead.
Whitworth Director of Admissions Marianne Hansen
Q. What are some of the concerns parents and prospective students are voicing?
MH We certainly hear concerns about affordability. Related to that are concerns about job and graduate school placement. As the unemployment rate remains above historical norms, families want to know that the significant investment they are making in higher education is going to pay off in terms of career advancement. Even with heightened concerns about financial issues, most students and parents are still very interested in mission, campus look and feel, and the quality of community life. In these areas, Whitworth continues to shine.
Q. How do you respond to those concerns when talking with students and their parents?
MH We encourage families to look at the net price of attendance after financial aid rather than the "sticker price." With private colleges like Whitworth investing more in financial aid, and tuition rising at public universities, the gap in net price between public and private institutions is shrinking. State budget cuts also are making it harder for students at public universities to graduate on time, which can dramatically increase a student's total college costs, while more than 85 percent of Whitworth's most recent graduating class finished in four years. We also need to acknowledge that the cost of providing an excellent college education has been going up faster than the rate of inflation -- similar to other industries that are dependent on a highly educated work force, early adoption of new technology, and other atypical cost drivers. This places a burden on families and calls on us to make the case for the value of a Whitworth degree. Whitworth is ranked by Kiplinger's as one of the top 100 private university values in the United States and is second among 118 regional universities in the West in U.S. News & World Report's 2012 rankings of best values. These rankings reflect Whitworth's academic excellence, affordable tuition relative to comparable institutions, and strong commitment to financial aid.
Q. What are some steps Whitworth is taking to address these issues?
MH For next year, we've increased our financial aid by about 10 percent -- increasing both academic merit scholarships and need-based grants. We've also revised the criteria for our academic scholarships, to make it easier for more students with good GPAs, who may not have great test scores, to qualify for higher scholarships. The big decision in the Whitworth 2021 plan to stabilize enrollment is enabling the university to reduce our student-faculty ratio and strengthen our professors' abilities to advise, mentor and support students. I would expect an even higher percentage of our graduates to finish in four years.
Q. Some alumni say that they could never get admitted to Whitworth now. Is this true?
MH As the number of applications to Whitworth has grown by 440 percent over the past decade, it's true that we have had to turn away many more students. However, we still take a holistic approach to reviewing admissions applications and do not reduce students to just numbers like GPA or SAT scores. In fact, we were one of the first schools in the Pacific Northwest to give students the choice of doing an interview rather than having their test scores considered in the admissions process -- since we realize that there are good students who may not be good test takers. Nevertheless, the academic profile of students applying to and enrolling at Whitworth is definitely rising. And that is a good thing for both the intellectual vitality of the campus and the value of a Whitworth degree.
Whitworth Senior Alicia Peebles
Q. Why did you want to attend college? Why did you choose Whitworth?
AP I wanted to come to college because I knew that if I wanted to be independent and to be able to provide for myself and my future family, I could not just sit around my hometown and do nothing. For as long as I can remember, my parents have encouraged me to go to college and to pursue my dreams, so not going to college was never a realistic option for me.
Originally, attending a Christian liberal arts college was not my plan; I wanted to go to a big state school that everyone knew about and that would stand out on a résumé. While completing my senior exit project, I heard about this small school in Spokane called Whitworth, and they sent me a streamlined application that didn't require an essay and was free to fill out. So I filled it out, sent it in, and waited for my acceptance letter so that I could include it in my exit project. But as I began to research Whitworth, I was very impressed by the goals, standards and achievements that defined the university. Before long, my desires began to shift, and when I got my acceptance letter, I knew that I would be a Whitworth Pirate.
Q. What did you and your parents hope you would get out of your college education? How has Whitworth met your expectations?
AP At first, my parents and I hoped that I would get a degree and that I would be able to get a good job so I could provide my own family with experiences that I did not get to enjoy due to growing up in a low-income family. I felt that I was strong in my faith and that I was smart, so I wasn't looking to change who I was. Then, at Whitworth, I began to meet so many people who were passionate about so many different things, and I began to question my motivation for everything I did. I discovered that I was trying to do things so I could get the prestige that comes with a certain career and not because I was passionate about them or because that was where God wanted me. The education I've received has met my parents' and my expectations, but more than that, I feel my growth as a person and as a Christian at Whitworth has been much more than we could have ever hoped for.
Q. What did you and your parents have to do to get you to Whitworth, in terms of finances? How did Whitworth help you?
AP My family andI have had to take out loans because we are low-income, but I've also received quite a bit of financial aid help from Whitworth. The financial aid office has also recommended numerous scholarships that I have applied for, and they've answered any questions that my parents and I have had.
Q. What are your post-graduation plans and long-term goals?
AP Science has always fascinated me, and I love the endless possibilities that a science degree holds -- anything from medicine to HIV research -- and the constant discoveries that change and redefine what it means to be a biologist. After graduation, I plan to go to pharmacy school and join the military. I hope that in the long term I can do gene therapy research to discover more about resistance to cancer, HIV, and other diseases. But above all, I want to find the place that God has prepared for me and I want to love His people through service.