Just the (Financial) Facts, Please
A point-by-point analysis of what is and what isn't true about Bucknell's financial security.
By David Surgala
What are common myths about Bucknell’s need for support, and what is the truth?
MYTH: The campus is so beautiful – Bucknell can’t need money to improve it.
TRUTH: Ask any student why he or she chose Bucknell, and you’re likely to hear a recurring theme: “This is what college is supposed to look like.” We do have a beautiful campus; in some ways, an archetypal liberal arts campus.
But appearances can be misleading. It takes tremendous resources to maintain our buildings and grounds, as well as the not-so-obvious infrastructure necessary to create comfortable, convenient and safe living-and-learning spaces.
There is an additional challenge. In the last 30 years, the expectations for private universities to provide outstanding amenities and campus settings for students have dramatically escalated — whether the most advanced (and expensive) campus technologies, superb fitness facilities or residence halls with all the latest features. Our primary objective is to provide a first-class learning experience, but as a residential university, we cannot take such expectations lightly.
Behind the 500 acres of winding paths, towering trees and warm red brick is an institution that the data show is overly reliant on tuition and fees, with a far-from-competitive per-capita endowment. This campaign aspires to change all that and make our financial resources match our appearance.
MYTH: Bucknell has received many gifts of at least $10 million, so my donation won’t make much difference.
TRUTH: The short story: No, it hasn’t. And yes, it will.
The University’s single-largest gift since WWII is $15 million; the second-largest, $11 million. The generosity of Bucknell donors makes us confident that the campaign now underway will lead to a number of other gifts of this scale or even larger.
But while large gifts can fund large-scale projects and programs, all gifts are crucial to University operations. This is especially true of the Annual Fund, which is put to immediate use where it is needed most, and benefits every Bucknell student. More than 80 percent of Annual Fund gifts are less than $500. Last year, these donations added up to nearly $1.3 million. Every program across the University benefits from these gifts. There is strength in numbers.
MYTH: The comprehensive fee today totals more than $55,000, and that pays all the costs of the University, doesn’t it?
TRUTH: Actually, no. We are overly reliant on net tuition and fees (i.e., not including our distribution of $47 million in financial aid), which comprise about 73 percent of our operating budget. The rest comes from endowment income (15 percent), gift revenue (6 percent), research grants (2 percent) and other sources (4 percent).
As all of higher education adjusts to the fact that universities must hold the line on significant tuition increases, our extreme dependence on tuition and fees will become a great competitive challenge, and endowment will become an even greater differentiator between institutions that thrive or falter.
Gifts to the Annual Fund are particularly important in keeping Bucknell as affordable as possible to the most qualified students.
MYTH: The endowment is already about $600 million. That must be enough to pay for everything Bucknell could ever need, right?
TRUTH: While Bucknell is certainly fortunate to have a $600 million endowment, as the facts above indicate the budget realities are challenging. We are highly dependent on tuition as a source of income in an era when we must contain comprehensive fee increases if we want to remain competitive for and accessible to the best students of all backgrounds. This puts increasing pressure on endowment to make up the costs of educating students at the level Bucknell does.
The 15 percent of our annual budget that comes from the endowment is a product of investment income on the endowment. We spend our endowment at a rate of about 4.5 percent per year. This is in keeping with related statutes for nonprofits. More than that, this rate of expenditure protects the endowment principal and preserves the spending power of the endowment relative to inflation. The remaining 95.5 percent of the endowment is perpetually reinvested to ensure Bucknell’s future strength and flexibility and to provide this income that is so essential to institutional operations.
Our challenge is underscored by the fact that many of Bucknell’s peer and aspirant schools boast a considerably higher endowment per student and per professor. This creates particular concern when private colleges and universities, especially the most competitive institutions such as Bucknell, depend upon endowment as the element that separates their ability to recruit and retain the finest students and faculty and deliver the cutting-edge programs students interested in such places expect. With the pressures already on Bucknell’s tuition and fees, the importance of the endowment to Bucknell is only growing.
Considering what our students, faculty and staff have accomplished despite this relative competitive disadvantage, imagine what Bucknell could do if its resources matched its scale. || Learn more about the endowment by reading Endowment 101 in this issue.
MYTH: Not many Bucknell students need financial aid, do they?
TRUTH: Actually, we would not be the Bucknell we know today, or have known for decades, without financial aid. Half of our students receive financial aid from the University, and a full 62 percent receive financial aid in some form from Bucknell, the federal government or other sources. Financial aid opens doors to opportunity, changes lives and brings great students to Bucknell who could not afford attending our University otherwise. Almost all the students who receive financial aid from Bucknell receive need-based scholarships — only 3 percent of them receive merit aid.
We are committed to providing financial aid because we know that we would not be able to recruit and retain the best students from all backgrounds without it — which means we would not be the Bucknell we are without it and would not otherwise be providing an education preparing our students for success in a global society.
David Surgala is Bucknell’s vice president for Finance and Administration.