RPC recommends keeping a large student body size

By Matea Wasend

Last October, The Mac Weekly reported that in as short a time as two years from now, the college’s revenue might not be enough to meet its expenses. Now, the Resource Planning Committee (RPC) and President Brian Rosenberg are in agreement on two measures in face of that problem: keeping the student body size large, and prioritizing competitive faculty and staff salaries over hiring of new personnel. Rosenberg called on the RPC to come up with a range of recommendations to help the college get through a time of slow revenue growth. The result was a spring 2011 RPC report entitled “Sustainable Operations at Macalester: Responses and Recommendations,” which focuses on ways to maintain revenue rates without compromising “a high quality student experience.” Rosenberg lent his full support to two of the report’s eight recommendations in a meeting with the RPC in September. The RPC and Rosenberg agreed on the advisability of targeting a student body size of around 1,950 students, about 100 students more than the stated maximum a few years ago. “Pretend those extra students are average,” said Director of Financial Aid Brian Lindeman. “Each average student brings the college about $22,000 a year. For each additional student, we have that much more money.” The extra revenue from each student would ideally provide a “limited financial cushion” until the endowment picks up, at which time the college would drop the student body size back down to “normal” targets of between 1,750 and 1,850 students. Tuition and endowment returns are the two largest sources of income for the college, as Vice President for Administration and Finance David Wheatley told The Mac Weekly last fall. The 1,950 student cap adheres to a 2009 RPC report, “Macalester 2000?”, which recommends that the school maintain a student body size below 2,000 unless it wants to hire at least 10 – 15 more faculty. Large incoming classes in have expanded the student body in recent years; this year, Macalester enrolls just around 1,960 full-time students. The RPC and Rosenberg agreed that a larger student body puts certain pressures on the school. Space constraints are perhaps the most visible impact, like in the cases of recent crowding in Café Mac and conversions of lounges into dorm rooms in Turck. But the report identifies the 1,950 target as a good balance between maximizing revenue and maintaining Macalester’s standards. “Recently we’ve had a higher-than-normal student enrollment size,” said Jeff Allen, Director of Admissions. “But in some ways that hasn’t really affected the student experience.” Achieving that target is a whole other challenge for the Admissions department, which must balance the number of students it accepts with the number it thinks will choose Macalester. Two years ago, the incoming class was unexpectedly large at almost 600 students after more accepted students picked Macalester than the admissions department had predicted. Rosenberg also expressed support for the RPC’s recommendation that Macalester prioritize competitive salaries over hiring additional faculty and staff in the next years. As staff salaries and health care benefits account for much of the yearly rise in expenses, that recommendation is not so much a money-saver as a quality-saver. Macalester’s ability to provide competitive salaries allows it to retain high-quality faculty, something neither the RPC nor Rosenberg wants to forfeit. “RPC believes that losing ground on compensation relative our peer institutions (in the case of faculty) and the broader labor market (in the case of staff) has the greatest potential of jeopardizing our student experience relative to belt-tightening in other areas,” the report states. At the RPC meeting, Rosenberg indicated that the college has no plans to expand the faculty and staff body, at least until the endowment picks up. Among the other six RPC recommendations was a measure to “peg” increases in financial aid to increases in tuition. As it stands, Macalester’s total financial aid expenditure has to increase at a faster rate than tuition, because family incomes simply don’t expand as quickly as tuition does. But the RPC recommends that Macalester limit yearly increases in financial aid. In strictly financial terms, Allen said, such a recommendation would be hugely effective. Financial aid is one of the school’s biggest costs after faculty and staff compensation. But both Allen and Rosenberg said such a change would leave Macalester incapable of sustaining the diverse student body it has now. With a limited financial aid budget, Macalester would either have to stop meeting the full financial need of its students, or start admitting more affluent students who needed less financial aid. “I think pegging increases in financial aid to increases in tuition is basically impossible, given what continues to happen to personal incomes in this country,” Rosenberg wrote in an email. Outside of its eight “recommended budgetary priorities during a period of slow growth,” the RPC also called for a “vigorous and systematic assessment” of the need-aware admissions system now employed by the school. Macalester went need-aware seven years ago after operating need-blind for around 30 years. The school still commits to meeting the financial need of every student it admits, but now a student’s ability to pay plays a role in whether they are admitted in the first place. Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Lorne Robinson called last year’s admissions decisions “the most difficult” yet in the report, citing tough trade-offs between financial need and factors like academic quality, gender and “diversity.” “Nobody likes it, including us,” Allen said. “But I personally believe that if the college wants to be the place it is now, we can’t do it without need-aware admissions.” The RPC’s question is whether the college is the same place now as it was under need-blind admissions. “Has the policy impacted the quality of classroom or campus experiences for the students?” the report asks. Rosenberg doesn’t think so. “I do not believe that the ‘Macalester experience’ has been impacted by the need aware policy,” Rosenberg wrote in an e-mail. “Since our discount rate is now higher and a higher percentage of students receive financial aid than was the case before the policy was enacted, it would be hard to argue that there has been an impact that has resulted from that policy.” Perhaps a “vigorous and systematic assessment” will tell.