Students at Westminster College upset over 8.5% tuition hike

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nate Martin, a freshman at Westminster College in Salt Lake City is worried about a recently announced tuition increase. The hike on tuition and fees came as a surprise to many students who heard it first in rumors and then later in an email from the school’s president. Most tuition increases at Westminster are 2 or 3% bumps and aren’t announced until the spring. This one — the largest in at least a decade there — came early and is 8.5%.

With a combination of scholarship money from running on the track team, a student loan, some financial aid and the bit of cash he earns from working 30 hours a week at his part-time job, Nate Martin has been able to — though just barely — cover his tuition and expenses at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

Though he knew it would be expensive, the freshman athlete was recruited to run and excited to study business at the private school. But last month, the college announced a massive new tuition increase.

Now, even with all he scrapes together, Martin is worried he won’t be able to continue at Westminster. “I don’t want to transfer, but I might have to,” he said. “I don’t really see another way. It’s not like dropping out is my first choice.”

The hike came as a surprise to many students who heard it first in rumors and then later in an email from the school’s president. Most tuition increases at Westminster are 2% or 3% bumps and aren’t announced until the spring.

This one — the largest in at least a decade there — came early and is 8.5%.

With it, tuition and fees will increase by nearly $3,000: from $34,984 to $37,690 per year, starting next August. The school already has the highest tuition of any in the state. And some students, like Martin, say they’re frustrated, aren’t sure how they’ll afford it and might have to leave the college they love.

“Students were absolutely caught off guard,” said Maggie Regier, a senior and the school’s student body president. “We have every right to be outraged."

One of the biggest problems, Regier believes, was how the small private school decided on and announced the increase. Westminster’s board of trustees met in November — in a meeting not open to the public — and approved the hike. College President Beth Dobkin told faculty in a Nov. 13 letter, and the information slowly trickled down to students.

Dobkin acknowledged in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune that originally the school didn’t plan to tell students until spring, as it usually does. But with concerns and building pressure, she decided to announce early. She sent a brief campuswide email on Nov. 21, a week after the board of trustees met, that said: “This increase reflects our need to establish a tuition price that comes closer to the actual cost of educating students.”

She also promised that along with it, the school would increase scholarships and financial awards to those who have low incomes. How much and who those will cover has not yet been determined, though. That will be announced at the beginning of spring semester.

“I can certainly understand students’ anxiety,” Dobkin said. “But we’ve had increasing costs for several years, and this is the way to balance the budget.”

Because the college is private, it does not receive funding from taxpayers via the Legislature like the University of Utah or Utah State University, where tuition is much lower (around $8,000 a year at the U., the priciest public institution in the state, and $7,000 a year at USU, by comparison). And it’s not religiously affiliated, either, like Brigham Young University in Provo, which is privately owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and charges tuition of roughly $6,000 a year.

Instead, Westminster is privately funded and tuition dollars are used to cover most expenses. And recently, the school’s obligations have not been covered by its revenue.

Dobkin said the tuition increase will help pay for double-digit increases in the costs for employee health care plans, as well as staff salaries. That comes after the college last year already cut several staff positions, reduced benefits for all faculty and dipped into institutional reserves.

“We’ve done as much as we can to minimize otherwise,” Dobkin added.

Private schools throughout the country are facing similar financial challenges, with some shutting down and going bankrupt. But students at Westminster say the onus shouldn’t be solely on them to make up the difference.

“It’s just too big of a jump in price,” Martin said. “It’s unrealistic for me to afford. And it’s stressful trying to figure it out.”

Regier said she wanted to go to a private college and only looked at those that were $35,000 or less — now Westminster will move out of that category. Many students, including her, have financial aid and scholarships and few at the college pay the full price of tuition. But adding an extra $3,000 a year is too much, too fast, she said, even with additional awards to compensate for it.

(If all of the 2,000 students at the small campus paid the full additional $3,000 under the increase, the school would rake in $6 million more a year.)

Lauren Millenbach, a sophomore studying public relations, pays about $18,000 a year in tuition after grants and scholarships are applied. She had budgeted for that and said she’s not sure how she’ll be able to cover much more under the hike. She said the education and small class sizes at Westminster are worth it — but she gets help from her single mother, who’s a middle school teacher, and the family doesn’t have a large account to draw from.

She believes that many have misconceptions about the student population at Westminster. It’s not all rich trust-fund kids; many, Millenbach said, are like her and need aid to attend. She chose the private college because of the financial aid package she was offered — which she didn’t get when she applied to the U.

“With the financial aid, it was doable,” she said. “Now it’s not. And I don’t want to put my mom in a bad spot. I don’t want to graduate with a bunch of debt.”

Last year, the tuition increase at Westminster was 2.9%. The year before, it was 3%. In her original announcement to faculty, Dobkin said the school has tried to hold “those increases as low as possible for many years” but it’s not possible any longer.

In the same message, though, she celebrated the anticipated groundbreaking of a multimillion-dollar performing arts center on campus funded by donors. Still, students were angry.

So many have pushed back against the 8.5% increase that Dobkin sent out a second email Tuesday, providing more information and saying Westminster still remains comparable or cheaper than other private schools nationwide.

Millenbach and others interpreted the message as defensive. “They’re asking for a lot of money and not explaining why,” Millenbach said. “I feel kind of like an ATM. But I’m a student and a person and this is my school.”

The budget numbers that Dobkin provided in the email note that Westminster received $41 million last year from tuition and fees, as well as $16 million from endowments and gifts and $4 million from campus housing fees. That would put revenues at roughly $61 million.

She said that, at the same time, staff salaries and benefits cost $42 million and other expenses, such as facilities and equipment, were $20 million. That would put the school at a $1 million debt.

When Dobkin was inaugurated as the school’s president in September 2018, she said Westminster has long had a reputation for being “inaccessible.” Her main goal was to get more students to apply by improving and better promoting the school’s financial aid program.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Bethami Dobkin speaks at her inauguration as Westminster College's 19th president in front of the school's Converse Hall in Salt Lake City, Saturday Sept. 29, 2018.

When asked this week whether the tuition increase runs counter to that, Dobkin responded: “The accessibility questions are often a sort of superficial look at what we can do for students.”

She has had a long career working in private schools and said the small class sizes and high-quality faculty are worth the cost.

“I’m not sure that there is always the appreciation for institutions like ours,” she added. “And they do have a different way of funding than public institutions that receive subsidies from tax dollars that we don’t have.”

Dobkin said students who are concerned about money should talk to a counselor at the school.

Naomi Guerrero, a freshman, feels that response brushes off real fears and undercuts minorities and those with unique circumstances at Westminster. Like Millenbach, she said, not everyone at the college is what people typically think of as a private school student.

Guerrero, for instance, is an undocumented immigrant and came to Utah from Mexico with her parents when she was 6 months old. Currently, she takes part in the Deferred Access for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which allows her to pursue an education in the United States but is under threat. And, as such, she can’t get state or federal financial aid or grants from the government.

She relies on private scholarships and help that Westminster can give her. Increasing tuition by $3,000, she said, is no small thing for her and other students in a similar situation. She currently pays about $4,000 a year after the aid received from the college — about the same as it costs to attend Salt Lake Community College, the least expensive public university in Utah.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “I don’t know if they’ll give me more scholarships. But it’s very concerning, and it’s a huge burden for my family.”

She wonders if she, too, might have to transfer or drop out over the tuition increase that she can’t afford.

Such large hikes are “not something that we would do every year or anticipate doing again,” Dobkin assured students in her response, and she again said financial aid would increase along with tuition costs, especially for students like Guerrero. The last time the college had such a bump was in the mid-2000s, she said, at least a decade ago.

“We’ll help those who need it most,” the president added.

The state’s public colleges have recently been scrutinized for raising tuition with few checks and balances. A scathing audit last year found that the eight public universities in Utah collectively secured $131.7 million in tuition increases over the past five years. This year, in response, the schools proposed some of the lowest hikes in the last decade.

None were as high as Westminster. The closest was Dixie State University in southern Utah, at 5%.

Students at the private college have created an Instagram page, “Westmini Students Speak Out,” where they’ve shared their concerns and are planning a protest at a faculty meeting Friday afternoon.

Those who will attend, like Martin and Guerrero, say they want to share their stories of the hardships in trying to cover tuition by working part-time jobs and cobbling together scholarships and still worrying about whether they’ll be able to re-enroll each semester.