When I walk into my room at 110th Street, I shake the change out of my pockets and my ID wallet and dump it into a blue, plastic Barnard bear-bank that sits on my dresser. I picked up the bear-bank at a campus fair last semester where college administrators and volunteers were encouraging Barnard students to take a coin bank, decorate it, and donate whatever spare change they could to Barnard’s financial aid funds. I like the bear; it’s a convenient place to throw my spare change until the remote day when I tell myself I’ll count it.
Most of my friends and roommates don’t use their bears.
“It’s weird,” says one of my good friends, “that Barnard’s asking us for money when we pay them so much and we don’t have any money anyway. It feels cheap.”
I don’t necessarily agree, but I also don’t ever get around to donating the coins in my bear to the college. What perhaps began as an endearing way to raise a little money for financial aid while adding school pride and a bit of decoration to our dorm rooms has turned into yet another puzzling reason to fear for Barnard’s finances. What student hasn’t encountered financial aid difficulties, either personally or through a friend? And we’ve all heard stories from students who failed to find housing on campus through Barnard’s Res Life, or started swimming at Uris Pool when the Barnard pool closed this past summer. Are these the everyday frustrations of life on a private college campus, or is there a problem with Barnard’s cash flow? Does Barnard really need our unspent dimes to fill its coffers?
The enigmatic but pervasive perception of Barnard as impoverished reflects that students were directly affected by budget cuts. The manifestations of these cuts engendered significant media coverage, as is evident through the host of Spectator articles on the subject that have been published over the past two years.
For example, in a highly controversial Spectator op-ed last spring in favor of a Barnard-Columbia College merger, Lanbo Zhang, now a Columbia College senior, wrote, “Barnard’s finances have been in shambles for as long as any current student cares to remember.” Comments on Zhang’s piece from both supporters and challengers agreed that “Barnard has no money.” Likewise, comments on the news that Barnard plans to demolish Lehman Library emphasized President Debora Spar’s acknowledgment of the need for funding before the new construction can begin. These articles reported real changes made by the Barnard administration in order to balance the budget, which clearly resulted in passionate feelings and fueled suspicions of Barnard’s penury within the student body.
A selection of other Spectator headlines further explored whether Barnard is lacking in funds: “Barnard reduces P.E.requirements to cut costs,”“Students oppose Barnard pool closure, slated for May due to budget cuts, ” “Barnard students say administrators misled them, as 9 remain without housing,” and “2011-12 in Review: With campus renovation in sight, Barnard cuts costs.”
But according to Spar and Chief Operating Officer Greg Brown, Barnard isn’t broke. In fact, they both say it’s doing well financially. So why are we so adamantly convinced by the flawed zeitgeist on campus about Barnard’s finances?
An Incomplete Financial History
Barnard began in 1889 as a college of six faculty members and 14 students studying in a rented brownstone in Midtown Manhattan. Columbia administrators allowed for the institution to open, but raised little money for the endeavor. Unlike its peer institutions for women, Barnard began without much wealth to build on. But despite this relative poverty, Barnard’s Morningside Heights campus was made possible in 1892 by a number of donations, and Barnard grew steadily as a sister school to the all-male Columbia College through the 20th century.
When suggestions that Barnard merge with Columbia College came to a head in the 1970s as other Ivy League universities steadily opened their doors to women, Barnard resisted both because of its integral identity as a women’s college and because of Columbia’s then-dire finances. An article in the Harvard Crimson from October 1974 asserted that “Barnard remains an independent institution and plans to stay that way for a very common reason—money. Historically, Barnard officials have avoided a merger with Columbia because the men’s college has a large debt which Barnard would presumably have to share.”
As we all know, Barnard remained independent when Columbia College began to enroll women in 1983. Since the late 1980s, Columbia’s endowment has been growing; it is now $7.6 billion, making it the sixth-wealthiest university in the nation. As of 2013, Barnard’s endowment has grown to $240 million.
To this day, Barnard’s and Columbia’s finances remain entirely separate. Throughout Barnard’s history, the college has paid an annual fee to the University to maintain the relationship that allows Barnard students access to Columbia libraries, dining halls, and course catalogues, as well as University degrees. At this point, that fee represents about $5 million per year, a number which is adjusted for tuition and cost increases every time Barnard and Columbia renegotiate their contract (this occurs every 15 years; the most recent agreement took place in 2008).
In 2013, Barnard is actually in an excellent place in its financial history. The college is able to maintain need-blind admissions and meet students’ demonstrated financial need. A higher percentage of students are receiving financial aid than ever before. The capital campaign, designed to build the college’s endowment significantly through donations over five years, was first introduced in 2012 and is projected to go public next year. The endowment, though not as high as those of many peer institutions—which are defined by Barnard administrators as Columbia, NYU, the other Seven Sisters colleges, and a selection of other elite colleges and universities—is at a record high, according to Barnard’s Finance and Operations office.
At a luncheon on Sept. 30 for reporters and administrators, Spar assured us of just this. “The financial situation is actually quite good,” she said. “I don’t know what changed the zeitgeist ... because the situation is really fine, it really is.”
With all the data I have collected from Chief Operating Officer Brown and the Office of Finance and Operations over the course of researching for this article, I have come to make the distinction between what the administration is talking about and what students are feeling. In this article, Barnard’s finances are largely compared to other accounts of Barnard’s finances rather than to the financial situations at other colleges. This is only one lens through which to view the situation, and does not seek to disregard the reactions of students to budget cuts over the past few years.
Some Relevant Numbers
A university or college’s operating budget depends on various sources of income. Although schools organize funds differently based on their particular sources of revenue, most private institutions acquire a large percentage of their budgets through tuition and fees. Beyond that, there’s a good deal of diversity. Colleges receive very different amounts of money as gifts based on their donor bases and build endowments through soliciting donations and investing existing funds.
Barnard receives tuition comparable to similar colleges and universities; tuition with room and board in 2011-12 was $55,566. The average among 30 peer institutions was $53,978.
But what puts Barnard at a financial disadvantage when weighed against almost every one of those peer institutions is its comparably paltry endowment. One of the most relevant ways to measure endow- ment is per student, as per capita endowment takes into account the relative size of an institution to its endowment. In 2011, Barnard’s endowment assets per full-time student were an average of $90,580. The average endowment per student among 30 chosen peer institutions was $589,539—more than six times Barnard’s number.
Ideally, endowment accounts for a very small percentage of an institution’s annual operating budget. At Columbia, about 5 percent of the budget comes out of the University’s endowment. In the years following the 2008-2009 financial crisis, Barnard’s annual expenditures exceeded its revenue, creating a deficit in the operating budget. In institutions with much larger endowments, this deficit can be mediated with a small portion of funds from the endowment. At Barnard, it’s a situation that requires both immediate cuts in order to reduce spending and long-term plans to increase the college’s endowment—something students have seen manifest in changes such as the elimination of a part-time tuition option.
According to Brown, this is all a necessary part of the college’s thoughtful financial planning process. The recession inevitably had an impact on the college’s revenue, but Barnard favored incurring a deficit over compromising on offering financial aid to students in need. “When the economy was in particularly bad shape, we made conscious decisions to have deficits. ... When families’ financial circumstances changed, we obviously needed to spend more on financial aid. We knew we were going to be in a deficit world, but we also had to make a commitment to get out of it,” he explains to me. “The target was to do it in the fiscal year we’re in right now, but we got it done last year.”
Barnard’s fiscal goal each year is to balance its budget. For not-for-profit colleges and universities, Barnard included, gross revenue and expenditure should be as close to equal as possible. This requires careful planning and is generally impossible to predict, especially considering the need-blind admissions policy and resultant uncertainty of demands for financial aid. Despite this, plans to strengthen Barnard’s financial circumstances do not include intentions to end need-blind admissions or Barnard’s commitment to meeting full need, contrary to some speculation on campus. Brown and Julie Tauber, a Barnard College junior and vice president of finance of Student Government Association, both assure me that providing adequate financial aid will always take precedence. “It’s a yearly gamble, but it’s always been a priority,” says Tauber.
In the past five years, Barnard has averaged a deficit; however, in the past year, and in the past 10 years on average, Barnard has taken in more than it has spent. We’ve just come out of a recession that was felt nationally. On campus, we’ve felt it in tuition raises and rumbles of budget cuts. Now, as Barnard is rising out of its low period and balancing its budget, it is an excellent time to set up the college’s finances so that tuition increases more slowly and Barnard can rely less heavily on tuition revenue in order to continue to operate in the black. Like Columbia, Barnard supports only 5 percent of its annual operating budget with endowment funds; some institutions rely on endowment funding for up to 30 percent. “I’m hoping we’ll change this down the road through fundraising,” says Brown.
This commitment to come out of an inevitable economic slump has spurred the capital campaign initiative, which seeks to grow Barnard’s endowment considerably. In the short term, the college’s propensity to develop a deficit has also resulted in changes that sity to develop a deficit has also resulted in changes that the student body has struggled with: mandatory meal plans, for example, and the aforementioned removal of the part-time tuition program. Based on these indicators, it’s understandable that students feel concerned about Barnard’s finances. With the college asking for a greater financial commitment from students on these accounts, how can we not worry that the money isn’t there? The good news is that, on the whole, the initiatives the college is taking to permanently improve its financial circumstances are beginning to pay off.
Barnard administrators know that increases in tuition and mandatory full-time enrollment are difficult for students to swallow. We care deeply for our college and the experience we have here, but we’re also overwhelmed by the burdens of tuition and debt. Finance and Operations is doing its best to run Barnard on a balanced budget while making sure students are able to pay for it. “Students,” says Brown, “no matter how generous your financial aid package is, often think that the grass is greener somewhere else. ...We’re deeply committed both to meeting full need and being need-blind, and that has not changed.” Of the perception that Barnard is in financial trouble, he says, “A lot of the conversation on campus last year was that we’re trying to fix a problem, and in the interest of being transparent, I wanted to make sure we let people know we were fixing a problem. At this point, we’re on the right track.”
The Difficulties with Donations
Barnard’s endowment has always been notoriously low. Of the Seven Sisters colleges, it is by far the least wealthy; every other college in the consortium has an endowment well over $500 million, and Wellesley and Smith are notably prosperous, boasting billion-dollar endowments and enormously generous alumnae bases. Yet Barnard is comparable to these colleges in age, size, and reputation, and is now the most selective women’s college in the nation. So why is it that Barnard’s endowment is so much smaller?
As Brown points out, “Barnard was founded not because there was a wealthy benefactor hanging out waiting to write a big check. There was a great idea but not a lot of money from the start.” Barnard began to acquire property and build its endowment long ago, and yet there has always been—and remains today—a frustrating and mystifying lack of alumnae donation. Only about 30 percent of Barnard alumnae give back to the college.
One cause may lie in Barnard’s long legacy of Barnard-Columbia marriages, which was especially strong in the days before Columbia College began to admit women. There has always been some confusion about where philanthropy belongs in the Columbia- Barnard relationship, and Barnard has traditionally done a poor job of appealing to Barnard-Columbia couples to give money equally to Barnard and to Columbia. Given the presence Columbia has in the education of Barnard students even today, it’s unsurprising that present-day Barnard alumnae sometimes donate to Columbia, perhaps mistakenly presuming that donations to the University will trickle down to all of the undergraduate colleges.
There’s also the question of the paths Barnard students take after graduation. “There’s some validity to the concern that a fair number of Barnard students went into careers that weren’t necessarily lucrative,” says Brown. Barnard students have a history of studying subjects less likely to lead to high-income careers than, say, students at larger universities or more specialized schools; the two most popular majors at Barnard are English and psychology. Of course, the same is true of graduates of many liberal arts colleges. While plausible, this reason alone can’t explain Barnard’s low levels of alumnae donation.
Interestingly (and ironically) enough, the college’s biggest obstacle might just be itself. Over the years, the college has done a substandard job of encouraging alumnae to donate. To make matters worse, glitches have arisen along the way. Spar reported that, recently, the alumnae databases recorded all alumnae whose files contained the letters “DEC” as deceased (including, for example, those with birthdays in December or names like Declan). The computers removed these alumnae from calling lists, and a number of alumnae were never contacted for donations as a result of the error, which has since been resolved.
Barnard is moving its focus now to paying close attention to alumnae and encouraging them to be involved in the financial health of the college in the long term. “We haven’t had as much of a focus on long-term philanthropy and missed some opportunities for raising money in peak economic periods,” says Brown. He also mentions that, in recent years, more donations have begun coming to the college from sources other than alumnae and their parents and relatives. The Athena Center for Leadership Studies, for example, has begun to attract donations from corporations and foundations with specific interest in the program—an example of how Barnard has diversified the options available to potential investors.
This, then, is part of the reasoning behind the bear-bank: The theory is that those who donate from the beginning, no matter how little they give, will continue to assist the college throughout their lives. “If you start donating, you keep donating,” says Tauber. Eventually, the $5 you can afford at graduation may turn into $5,000.
The fact remains that there’s nothing stopping Barnard alumnae from giving more. Barnard just has to start pursuing funding in a more consistent, thoughtful way than it ever has before—and it’s starting now.
The Capital Campaign & the New Construction
So what about reports, weaving around those concerning budget cuts, that Barnard is gearing up for an enormous fundraising campaign beginning this coming spring?
“The numbers we’re talking about today are healthy signs that we’re ready to do a campaign, because you always have to come from a place of strength,” says Brown.
Barnard plans to use this period of rising financial health to continue the trend and move with momentum into building funds and financial stability. This month, Spar spoke with great optimism about the capital campaign and how it will affect the value of the college as a whole, especially in terms of building Barnard’s endowment in the long term. While the college doesn’t operate on the endowment, a significant endowment does allow for long-term stability and projects essential to the health of the institution. It’s also a consequential part of the college’s perceived ability to provide a valuable education, factoring heavily into college reviews and rankings.
“The endowment is a big focus of the capital campaign,” Spar says. “When we’re through with it, will it move us up in the rankings? Probably. But that’s not the reason we do it. The reason we do it is because we want to make sure we can continue to offer the kind of financial aid we’d like to offer and continue to attract the kind of faculty we want to attract in perpetuity. It’s the right thing to do.”
Another focus of the campaign, Brown promises, will be the widely speculated plans for a new building on campus. The Teaching and Learning Center, a new piece of construction proposed for the space Lehman Library currently occupies, is indeed in the early planning stages. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not at all at odds with Barnard’s current financial circumstances: All of the money for the building will come from new fundraising solicited specifically for this purpose.
“A source of confusion last year was a lot of early talk about the new construction. The goal is to raise money for this express purpose and not at the expense of anything else we’re trying to do,” says Brown. In fact, “we’re actively seeking donors for this project. We have enough commitments from donors that we actually felt we could start investing in the planning.”
This new vision for campus isn’t slated to come to fruition until sometime in 2015 or 2016. Though the building hasn’t yet been designed, some goals include more group study spaces and a more modern library. In addition, it turns out that the anticipation of the new construction has had more to do with the closing of the pool than expense did. Rather than invest several million dollars into renovating the pool, Barnard determined that the space will be necessary for storage while the construction takes place—and when the construction is finished, there are other plans in store for the pool’s old home, perhaps including a new and improved fitness center.
The Future: A Balancing Act
There’s a reason we’ve spent so much time in the last year talking about Barnard’s financial position. The College has made a series of policy changes that had a strong effect on students and made them question whether the administration takes their financial concerns seriously. But we’ve also turned a corner. It’s true that we live on a campus that holds its purse strings tightly. We pay high tuition for our Barnard educations. We live in New York City; we know that the money is necessary for the experience we receive. But what we may need to think more carefully about is that Barnard is not meant to be an experience of total security or luxury.
“Barnard is never going to be a school that spends money for the sake of spending money,” says Brown. “We do manage everything to a penny, which I think is what parents of Barnard students expect. We’re trying to be responsible.”
Dean of Studies Natalie Friedman also comments on the changing ways in which institutional wealth is weighed in the perceived value of a college education. “Endowment does matter to an extent,” she says, “but the conversation is going to change.”
Nevertheless, Barnard is weighing its gains and losses, its possessions and debts, in the same way that its students are. It’s a constant game of equilibrium. In the coming years, the college has plans to create a greater reserve for the generations to come—but for now, the experts on the subject say it’s managing well. Brown has compared Barnard’s financial system to the manner in which it offers students financial aid: The college wants to make sure students are able to afford school, but it does ask students to pay loans. The security of a valuable education and the reasonable debt that is owed for it are complementary: They encourage a philosophy of responsibility, an awareness of value and its subtleties.
In the words of Brown, “It just makes sense to have a little bit more of your own responsibility in it, but not too much. We’re a little more frugal and we’re a little more direct about being frugal. That’s our balancing act. This is our story. I don’t think we need to apologize for it.”