Huebner: Mercy for Administrators

On experiencing newfound empathy for the College.

by Julia Huebner | 5/18/17 12:50am

In early March, the entire Dartmouth community was emailed an invitation from the College president’s office to participate in “Inside Dartmouth’s Budget,” a five-session lecture series on higher education finance at the College. The email advertised the program as a chance to “unpack Dartmouth’s budget by exploring our revenue and expenditures in the context of national trends and external forces that impact higher education.” Intrigued, I signed up and was randomly selected to participate.

Although I only attended three of five sessions — facing competition from four other classes, the weekly Tuesday night lectures were the first to go — I would recommend the course to any student interested in affecting the College’s finances and mission so that he or she might better ground an argument in the reality of administrators. On the other hand, while I became more sympathetic to the complex balancing act that administrators must strike to appease their many stakeholders, the difficulty of administrators’ jobs is no excuse for failure to create principled policy.

At the first lecture on April 4, I was most surprised not by content but by the relatively few undergraduates in the room. For this year’s course, which is now in its fourth year, 73 undergraduates signed up initially, and 39 were randomly selected and registered to participate, according to Dartmouth’s assistant vice president for finance Tricia Spellman. One hundred participants — faculty, staff, undergraduates and graduate students — were registered in total. If all undergraduate students attended the course, four of 10 participants would be undergrads and I’d still be among a sizable minority. During any given session, however, I observed only about five to seven of my peers.

I understand why so few students — less than a fourth — would regularly attend the lecture series. Tuesday nights are usually bursting with commitments. I missed two lectures for one reason or another — as a social science and writing geek, higher education finance isn’t on my list of sexy lecture topics. However, the advantages of participating in Inside Dartmouth’s Budget outweigh the drawbacks.

First, the course provides access to high-level administrators — including Provost Carolyn Dever, executive vice president Rick Mills, chief financial officer Mike Wagner and College President Phil Hanlon — that undergrads rarely enjoy. While my conversations with these administrators lacked substance, the access to them and their priorities gave me a newfound appreciation for their constant juggling of competing interests.

Second, the diversity of roles among participants made me re-evaluate the moral absolute that I put on (my own) opinion as an undergraduate student. Throughout the sessions, I mostly talked to Wester Schoonenberg Th ’20 and Bryant Coen, a senior financial analyst at Dartmouth’s budget office. Although I often advocated for the undergraduate perspective during our small group discussions, their input opened my eyes to the myriad of stakeholders that I didn’t know existed — and that the administration needs to pacify. Additionally, learning beside staff helped me to appreciate that staff members are not all part of a bureaucratic machine: Those who attended obviously care about students and the priorities of the College. Staff, students and faculty asked tough questions of the speakers and panelists throughout the sessions.

Third, at least some of the material was downright cool. For those who didn’t sign up — and my fellow undergraduates who signed up and didn’t show up — a few tidbits bear repeating:

1. Undergraduate tuition for the 2017-18 school year is $51,468, not including room and board. In 1813, tuition was $21; room and board was $2.

2. The total expenses of Dartmouth — excluding the professional schools — divided by the number of undergraduate students is about $120,000 per student. That means that, on average, the cost of attendance even for full-paying students is subsidized heavily by philanthropic gifts and the College’s endowment.

3. The undergraduate “sticker price” — including tuition, mandatory fees, room and board for a full-paying undergraduate student — has grown about 4 percent compounded annually from 1813 to the 2017-18 school year and 4.4 percent from 2000 to 2018.

4. For undergraduate students on financial aid, the average net price has risen about 1.5 percent per year from 2000 to 2016, from $13,063 to $17,511.

5. Dartmouth’s total compensation for staff is almost double that it is for faculty (faculty compensation is 32% and staff compensation is 62%).

Dartmouth is still an institution that I appreciate for its opportunities but critique for its deep flaws. This has not changed. However, I’m now willing to give more empathy — but not leniency — to our administrators. While the undergraduate student voice is important, it is far from the Dartmouth administrators’ sole motivator or largest concern. While I might wish otherwise, Dartmouth continues to exist because of much more than just the students’ collective will. To make meaningful change at the College, we first need to understand how finance at the College works, and Inside Dartmouth’s Budget provides one window to meet that challenge.