Months of reopening preparations and years of financial prudence set strong defenses against the pandemic, helping the University leave the year in the black.
Chris Ruhl, Purdue’s chief financial officer and treasurer, said Purdue took a number of measures in the spring to achieve a break-even budget including a staff-hiring freeze, reductions in travel and deferred planned salary increases. These strategies reportedly put the University in a healthy financial position going into winter break.
“In general the financial state of the West Lafayette campus finances is stable,” Ruhl said. “Through November we are modestly outperforming budget which enabled us to provide the ($750) appreciation bonus for faculty, staff and grad students.”
The University will spend an estimated $60 million on COVID-19 health and safety measures this fiscal year. Additionally, state appropriations to higher education are down 7%, amounting to a $17 million cut for the West Lafayette campus.
The University “took a big gamble” committing to reopening just a few weeks after sending students home in March, said Christine Rienstra-Kiracofe, a professor in educational leadership and policy studies.
Rienstra-Kiracofe conducted a nationwide survey in the summer of around 360 college students and found the top priorities of students for the fall were an in-person experience and a robust COVID-19 plan. She believes the University’s early investment and planning sustained enrollment and helped keep Purdue afloat.
As nearly 90% of students opted to come back to campus in the fall, the University maintained revenue streams in housing and dining.
And while declines in enrollment and cuts in state funding crippled university budgets across the country, Purdue bucked the trend, welcoming its largest freshman class this fall at 8,925 students.
A record-high 57,000 applications and strong enrollment numbers surprised administration said Kristina Wong Davis, vice provost for enrollment management.
“A lot of this is very intentional,” Davis said in a September University Senate meeting. “I think coming out early, much like the (Purdue) President (Mitch Daniels) often says, saying what we intended to deliver for fall and then continually communicating all summer with families as decisions were made, helping them to understand what expectations to have in regards to campus goes a long way to helping families make a decision they feel good about.”
Rienstra-Kiracofe explained that increased enrollment can save money through economies of scale. Moving from 20 to 25 students in a classroom leads to additional tuition revenue while incurring little added costs.
“You kind of have to balance it. If the work becomes onerous — if now advisers have doubled the caseload, then students aren’t receiving the best services that they can receive,” Rienstra-Kiracofe said. “But on the flip side, let’s say we had raised tuition every year like a regular Big Ten school had and we were up to $20,000 (in tuition). That would negatively impact the number of students that wanted to come.”
The unpredictable financial environment puts the sustainability of the tuition freeze in question. Rienstra-Kiracofe, whose research focuses on education law and finance, anticipates a moderate rise in tuition in the coming years.
“Eventually inflation will catch up. There has to be an input somewhere,” Rienstra-Kiracofe said. “If the state gave us tons more money, then maybe, but what we know is the state is not going to give us tons more money.”
With the recent announcement of frozen tuition through the 2022-23 academic year, Ruhl said the University will continue to approach it one year at a time.
“We’ve been able to do it for eight years, with a ninth and now 10th year announced, while continuing to make strategic investments to enhance quality and grow our teaching, discovery and engagement missions, providing strong merit increases for faculty and staff, operating in the black financially and not incurring piles of debt,” Ruhl said.
“Those are the guideposts – if we can do those things listed, why would we raise tuition?”