Thursday, September 27, 2012
To the Grinnell community,
Among the many distinctions that we proudly claim for Grinnell College, only three are elevated to the level of core values: academic excellence, diversity, and social responsibility. This trio explicitly includes our commitment to making a Grinnell education accessible to promising students regardless of their financial means.
For three decades we have enacted this commitment through our need-blind admissions policy and a promise to meet the full financial need of all our admitted domestic students. The need-blind policy dates back to the early 1980s. Our work has had a demonstrable impact on the lives of numerous Grinnellians and their families; Grinnell students graduate with less student loan debt than students from any other college in Iowa — including our public universities — and from many of our national public and private peers.
As the College’s president, I join you in celebrating these achievements. At the same time, we must protect our ability to continue upholding our principles in the future. How can we help Grinnell remain excellent and accessible? Each commitment costs money, whether to recruit the best new faculty or provide aid that enables talented but financially challenged students to choose Grinnell. Neither choice is sufficient; none of us would be satisfied if Grinnell offered students first-rate access to a second-rate education. Nor would we accept the idea of becoming a top-tier school accessible only to wealthy students. Fortunately, neither of these scenarios has come to pass. I want to ensure that they never do.
For many years, Grinnell has regarded our endowment as the solution. We are the beneficiaries of donors and trustees who grew and stewarded our endowment over several decades, enabling us to support great programs without raising tuition out of reach.
During the boom years of the late 1990s and early 2000s, strong investment returns enabled us to depend heavily on our endowment; the share of the College’s operating funds taken from the endowment rose from 30 percent in the 1980s to the 40s during the 1990s, to approximately 55 percent today. Our reliance on this source of funds to the relative exclusion of other streams puts us at risk.
In recent years endowment growth has slowed with the global economy, while families’ need for aid has increased significantly. These trends are cause for concern. None of us would ever want to see the day when we had to choose whether to spend our resources on excellence or access. Put more starkly: We never want our values to depend on the markets.
Grinnell is not at that impasse yet. But other institutions are. Many of you have heard the recent news of Wesleyan’s difficult decision to step away from an explicit need-blind policy. The announcement generated much discussion and concern, both within Wesleyan’s community and nationally. What has been somewhat overlooked is that, despite the change, Wesleyan is still committed to admitting the first 90 percent of each class on a need-blind basis. Even so, the decision has been a painful one for them.
The size of Grinnell’s endowment has cushioned us against some of these pressures for now. But we cannot avoid them forever. Today we have a chance to take advantage of our privileged position by looking ahead and planning for a principled future. We are implementing a set of steps to begin this work by providing information to the community about our current situation and the reasons why we believe it is necessary to take a new approach to the future. For example, we are investing significantly in our communications and fundraising efforts toward the goals of attracting future applicants and inspiring philanthropic support. We are also pursuing every opportunity to moderate costs. However, we cannot solely cut our way out of this situation; we will also need to find additional income to pay for the programs through which we uphold our values.
Financial aid policies are a key area where we need to think about the future—to be intentional and proactive about protecting our values. In the spirit of shared governance, I have been working closely with members of our Executive Council—the faculty’s elected governing body—and the Committee on Admission and Financial Aid (CAFA) to define a series of steps toward a communitywide discussion of our financial aid policies.
Following are the initial plans for how we will organize these conversations. I hope this sequence will enable a thoughtful, transparent, and inclusive discussion of our options for strengthening our financial outlook.
- We began by holding a series of in-depth meetings with CAFA and the faculty as a whole.
- At 7 p.m. tonight (Thursday, Sept. 27), we will hold a town hall meeting in Herrick Chapel, following a similar meeting Monday, Sept. 24. The campus community (students, faculty and staff) is hearing presentations by chief financial officer Karen Voss and vice president for enrollment Joe Bagnoli, Jr., about the College’s finances and some of the options available to protect our commitment to our core values.
- On Friday, Oct. 4, Karen and Joe will give a similar presentation to the Alumni Council, class agents, class fund directors, and class solicitors during the Fall 2012 Alumni Council and Volunteer Weekend
- Following that weekend, we will post an audio slideshow of the presentations. I will send you an email when these presentations are posted, and I encourage you to view them and submit your comments and suggestions to them. Your thoughts will inform our discussion with the board of trustees, below.
- On Oct. 12 and 13, I will lead a discussion of the core issues with our board of trustees. It will include a summary of themes that emerge from the alumni community’s initial comments.
- In early December, the faculty will make recommendations to me about the College’s future financial aid policies.
- I will take the community’s full input into account—faculty, staff, students, and alumni—when I make my own set of recommendations to the trustees in December for moves that can strengthen our long-term financial health. I anticipate coming out of this process with a strong sense of where we are as a community.
- Finally, the board of trustees will deliberate and vote on a course of action at their February, 2013 meeting.
One of Grinnell’s distinctive features is our commitment to community. We tackle problems together and benefit from the input of our diverse members. For that reason, I want us all to understand the College’s financial situation — to look at the “levers” that affect our financial situation and discuss which ones we think should be pulled.
Challenging times like these are a test of our commitment to our values. I want us to have a process that is as inclusive, respectful, insightful, and passionate as Grinnell can be. I believe this conversation will strengthen us as a community while advancing Grinnell’s deep and simultaneous commitments to excellence, diversity, and access.
I urge you to please play your part.
Raynard S. Kington