Westminster cites enrollment, financial struggles in closure of Mesa campus

After a year of operation, Westminster College’s Mesa campus in Mesa, Ariz., will close its doors.

President Barney Forsythe announced the decision via email on April 22. According to the email, in order for the campus to stay open the college would have to invest significantly more money and time to attract the number of students needed to sustain operations.

The Mesa campus was opened without putting a financial strain on college through an alumni fundraising campaign that garnered $10 million in start-up funds.

“Financially, we were only using donor money,” Forsythe said. “It wasn’t a big financial risk short term or long term.”

As the first semester began, it became clear that despite the covered start-up costs, the campus was already plagued with financial issues. According to a Mesa Campus Evaluation Report released in December 2013 by David Jones, associate dean of faculty, Westminster originally wanted and needed to enroll around 65 students to generate a sufficient amount of tuition-based funds for the campus’s operations. When the Fall 2013 semester began, only 23 students were enrolled.

Forsythe said this led to a difficult decision as the beginning of the school year approached: whether or not to wait another year to open.

“We were far off from where we wanted to be for Fall 2013, but we had the resources (to open),” he said in an interview.

With the promise of financial gifts from the Board of Trustees, the campus opened its doors.

“After that I was always watching,” Forsythe said. “I’ve been watching the enrollment process very closely and (this year) we’re still no where near what we expected or what we would need to go on. The demand was not where we expected, what we wanted or what we needed it to be.”

The low level of enrollment resulted in a deficit of $300,000 for the 2013-2014 school year. Supplemented by the financial support from the Board of Trustees, the gap narrowed to about $2,000. No such supplemental financial gifts were planned for the 2014-2015 year.

The CEV report by Jones cited the magic number of students projected for the 2014-2015 school year was 110. The amount of money generated through that tuition money combined with operating costs would have resulted in a deficit of about $50,000. Rob Crouse, director of media and public relations, said the actual projected number of student enrollment calculated this semester was far from that goal.

“We wanted to attract 60 more students for next year,” Crouse said. “Under the best-case scenario we’d only attract 30-40 students next fall and that wasn’t enough growth.”

With a tuition deposit for the next school year looming, Forsythe said he, with the support of the Board of Trustees, decided to pull the plug.

“The decision to close the Mesa campus was based on a conclusion that keeping it open would not achieve results consistent with the College’s Mission and Vision,” read an official statement released by the Board of Trustees on Westminster’s news website.

According to the official announcement of the campus’ closing from Forsythe, those goals of the Mission and Vision for Mesa included: “Providing the same exceptional educational experience that Westminster has been known for throughout its 163-year history, filling the need for private, liberal arts undergraduate education in a rapidly growing population and developing a source of revenue to help sustain our Fulton campus in the future.”

The campus, originally created due to an invitation from the city of Mesa, was planned to give a financial boost to the Fulton campus, which has seen a steady decrease in enrollment for the past three years. The height of enrollment occurred in Fall 2010 with a student body of 1,150. Fall 2011 saw enrollment drop to 1,077 after the record-high from the year before and Fall 2013’s enrollment was down to 1,013 students.

Westminster College is a tuition-dependent school, meaning most of its funds is generated through students’ tuition money — a drop in students means a drop in funds. Instead of supplementing extra money for the cash-strapped Fulton campus, it seemed to Forsythe that Mesa, at least for the next year, would drain already-tight funds.

“The financial model in Mesa, where we were dependent on three-fifths of the operating budget on gifts and two-fifths in tuition, was not a financially sustainable model,” he said.

Though the outcome wasn’t what he wished it could have been, Forsythe said, “This was a learning experience for all of us. I’m optimistic overall moving forward.”

The view from Mesa isn’t quite as positive.

Freshman Ben Watson said he was blindsided by the decision.

“I knew enrollment was kind of low, but hopefully we’d have bigger numbers now we’re established and there’s a physical campus,” Watson said.

Watson said he and his fellow students at the Arizona campus are feeling a certain level of betrayal.

“President Forsythe said that we were building the plane as we’re flying it. None of us ever expected for them to just let the plane crash and burn. There’s some shame in thinking that I invested some part of my future in this, in this college, and now we’re learning that this investment is a waste. Not a total waste, and I will get credit, but this won’t become a part of who I am or what I do,” Watson said.

As a staff member of the Mesa campus, Matt Rucker, assistant regional enrollment officer, said he wished for more support from Fulton, and that that might have made all the difference.

“Yes, it was lukewarm (the feeling of investment) for sure,” Rucker said. “They were invested as they needed to be. They never adjusted their commitment to the market.”

The “market” was one of the main struggles for enrollment according to Rucker and Forsythe. Unlike Missouri, Arizona doesn’t have a market for liberal arts colleges. Most students go to community college and move on to state schools like Arizona State University, which is currently the largest university in the country.

“It was a problem because Fulton didn’t really understand the market,” Rucker said. “It’s a super competitive market with ASU and it’s unfortunate because they (ASU) spend a lot of most of their money on recruiting and marketing instead of student development. We did the opposite, but how do well tell people that? Through marketing.”

Rucker said that much of the marketing material he and Hillarie Price, regional director of enrollment services, were given was text-heavy, inconsistent in look and color, and confusing for potential applicants.

Another hurdle was the number of students the two were expected to enroll.

“It was just myself and Hillarie and we were supposed to get 100 students, and it pretty much seemed like no matter what we said, we could not convince anyone to change that number in their head,” Rucker said.

In contrast, Rucker said Benedictine University, which came to Mesa in a similar fashion as Westminster, has about 100 students and 10 enrollment officers to recruit.

Overall, Rucker said that Westminster had a lot to offer the area, but at least in his department if not throughout the college, they needed more time and human and financial resources.

“We’re talking about about a college that put itself in this situation and expectations were just too high,” he said.

Tim Aldred contributed to this story.

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