Cheng: Try for Transparency

Greater financial transparency at the College can promote student wellness.

by Christopher Cheng | 2/16/18 12:15am

Though some may disagree, the College is not technically a business. As a nonprofit educational institution, one of Dartmouth’s core objectives is to provide the highest quality education possible to its students. For-profit institutions, on the other hand, prioritize seeking financial returns.

An effective way to evaluate the success of a for-profit institution is to review its consolidated balance sheet. Evaluating a nonprofit college’s success is more difficult. U.S. News measures “the relative quality of U.S. institutions” on the basis of faculty resources, graduation rate, student selectivity and other factors. However, accurately measuring education quality is not that simple.

Nonprofit colleges offer learning and growth experiences inside and outside the classroom. They also provide various support services to combat learning disadvantages — for example, support for students struggling to concentrate on their studies. Safety and Security, Dick’s House counseling and Dartmouth permitting Greek life on campus can all be thought of as ways Dartmouth tries to facilitate learning. However, many of the measures the College takes in order to nurture a productive learning environment generate financial costs. Since the College’s budget is finite, allocation of these resources is particularly important. If an academic department is underfunded, the College’s mission to provide the highest quality education possible to its students is undermined. How can the community ensure accountability and transparency on this issue?

The reality is that even at a nonprofit college like Dartmouth, transparency is difficult. The College shares a limited amount of information regarding how it funds specific projects or departments. Annually, the College publishes an audit of its accounts. Unfortunately, this document is far from transparent about important expenses such as those on resources supporting student wellness. Dartmouth’s expenses are broadly broken down into four categories: academic and student programs, sponsored programs, general institutional services and auxiliaries. The vagueness of these categories causes the numbers associated with them to have lose meaning. For example, faculty salaries and the costs associated with student wellness programs could hypothetically be in the “academic and student programs” category. If the College were hypothetically to cut student program funding and funnel that money into boosting faculty salaries, it can do so without any net change in its balance sheet and the Dartmouth community may never realize the mechanisms of the change.

The Office of the President does host “Inside Dartmouth’s Budget” to offer a comprehensive breakdown of the College’s finances to attendees. However, the barriers to participation in these events are high. Attendance at all six two-hour sessions is compulsory, and participants are even assigned coursework. While it makes sense that the College wants to ensure that its attendees gain a comprehensive understanding of its budget, Dartmouth students are far too busy with classes, extracurriculars and other commitments. Indeed, the number of undergraduate attendees at last year’s budget sessions was as low as five.

Funding allocations should not be made lightly, and those making relevant decisions should shirk culpability. The current structure of Dartmouth’s financial reports and the College’s empty gestures of transparency are not enough. One way the College can increase transparency is by announcing, on a regular basis, the funding provided to each department, both academic and nonacademic, such as the athletics department and various student support organizations across campus such as the Student Wellness Center. Even if there is a compelling reason for the College to maintain privacy over the actual figures, that is no excuse to obfuscate these numbers to the extent that the administration currently does. For example, it should not be risky for the administration to publish the percentage change in funding per department over a given time period. This arrangement would also help address the issue raised earlier that if the College were to redirect funding from student wellness programs to faculty salaries, students would likely be blindsided.

Although Dartmouth is a nonprofit educational institution in name, its current financial transparency strongly resembles that of a business. The financial manner in which Dartmouth’s education is provided should be made more transparent to the students it is dedicated to. Obfuscation of the College’s finances facilitates autocratic control, so the administration should change its practices accordingly to ensure the accountability of its leaders’ decisions. Financial accountability, particularly in terms of student wellness funding, can ensure that the programs that students want or need are not underfunded in favor of vague objectives.