By The Gettysburgian Editorial Board
Long before 2020, Gettysburg College faced serious financial challenges stemming from an impending demographic cliff that promises to complicate future class sizes at liberal arts institutions. This past October, in a prelude to the college’s next strategic plan, President Bob Iuliano underscored these economic uncertainties.
“Before COVID hit, national projections estimated that the college-bound population would decline by 16 percent beginning in 2025,” he said. “Given the economic displacement students are now experiencing, however, it seems clear that changes are already occurring.”
In 2013, the Gettysburg student body numbered just over 2,700; this semester, that number is down to about 2,400. Approximately 80 percent of Gettysburg’s operating budget relies on student tuition, room, and board, making lower enrollment numbers concerning. These smaller class sizes, combined with an average tuition discount rate of about 51 percent, leaves Gettysburg College in a strained fiscal situation due to reliance on a tuition-dependent model.
In other words, as the student body shrinks, so does our operating budget revenue. And now the college has increased expenditures in order to stop the spread of COVID-19 on campus—a necessary albeit expensive decision that has continued to intensify our financial realities across the board.
All of this boils down to the fact that Gettysburg College is running a significant deficit, in the millions of dollars, that poses a risk to our institutional sustainability.
On top of these financial concerns, students are feeling increasingly disconnected from the community they thought they signed up for when they chose to attend Gettysburg College.
So, what’s next? What can we do to ensure the college’s long-term success amid a pandemic that threatens to undermine the kind of connections at the heart of a liberal arts education? In other words, what can we do right now to move toward the kind of financial stability that will serve our institutional integrity in the long run?
At a minimum, we must use the pandemic as an opportunity to strengthen our values and tackle the challenges that we can no longer avoid as an institution. It’s easy for collective morale to sink in response to the kind of division and struggle we see in the world right now, but in order to ensure our sustainability as a liberal arts college we must think of ways to go beyond merely staying afloat. The college must work to reframe this moment as a call to action—as a time to redefine our identity as members of the Gettysburg College community and move collectively towards a more secure financial future where our retention rate remains strong and our enrollment stays up.
“Yes, we’re still in this pandemic. But that doesn’t mean we have to put our ambition on hold.”
Achieving these goals starts with building trust between students and the administration in order to ensure that our community stays connected and committed to the shared responsibility of keeping the campus safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. We see the development of this two-way trust as a means of ensuring the health and safety of the campus community, in that students who feel trusted will be more likely to act in a way that places more value on in-person education than a night of maskless gathering.
Two-way trust would allow students to feel heard as important members of the campus community, and could also provide more opportunities for the college to communicate openly. Prioritizing transparency will allow for a greater focus on our long-term goals surrounding institutional sustainability.
Yes, we’re still in this pandemic. But that doesn’t mean we have to put our ambition on hold. In fact, we believe that this is the moment for the kind of changes that will allow us to be steps ahead of our peer institutions in the years to come.
That said, here are some actions we believe would strengthen Gettysburg College during the COVID-19 pandemic and secure our place as a competitive liberal arts college in the future:
- Greater efforts to support the mental health needs of students. We know more students are stressed due to the pandemic, so we should expect more mental health needs to arise. Instead of simply maintaining the counseling options we had prior to the move to remote learning last spring, Gettysburg should expand and strengthen the counseling available to students during this challenging time. Additionally, making the dates for this semester’s surprise Wellness Days available to students would pave the way for the development of more two-way trust between the college and students when it comes to prioritizing mental health.
- A bold strategic plan this spring. The college should use the development of a new strategic plan as an opportunity to be more aggressive when it comes to improving our national reputation, and our mission should be no less ambitious than it would have been had it been drafted a year ago—if anything, it should be even stronger.
- Greater diversity within the President’s Council. This would demonstrate our commitment to diversity and inclusion at the administrative level and strengthen the college by making the administration more representative of the student body. A commitment to diversity at the highest levels of leadership could also lead to more trust between the college and underrepresented groups on campus, potentially resulting in higher retention rates and a greater sense of connection and community.
- More community-building events for both in-person and remote students. A greater emphasis on activities designed to engage the campus community safely, such as outdoor food festivals and hikes, would make Gettysburg feel more like home for students on campus. Students studying remotely would benefit from more frequent meetings with advisors and communication from the college about how to stay engaged as Gettysburg students studying virtually.
- The creation of a COVID-specific class. A course connecting the liberal arts to larger societal issues like the pandemic would highlight the power of critical thinking and interdisciplinary, discussion-based classes in solving global problems, in turn underscoring the power of a liberal arts education. If anything, COVID-19 has shown us that a commitment to challenging questions and complexity can take on an enormous role outside of the classroom.