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New enrollment for fall 2021 hold stake in budget planning

What will enrollment numbers reveal as budgeting becomes finalized?

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Stack of books over a green background with dollar signs in each corner. New student enrollment will impact Western Washington University’s 2021-2023 budgeting. // Illustration by Zoë Parker

The results of new student enrollment numbers for fall 2021 impact budgeting and financial prospects for the upcoming biennium. The effects of enrollment are expected to be better understood in May, as students across the country commit to colleges and universities. 

In a Board of Trustees meeting on April 2, Faye Gallant, the executive director of budget and financial planning presented an update on Western’s budget outlook for the 2021-2023 biennium. A major piece of the budget remains outstanding, as new student enrollment is not yet confirmed. 

“At this stage it’s very difficult to understand if our normal conversion rates from applications to enrollments will apply and what student behavior will be in the coming year,” Gallant said. “We’re hopeful with the expanded rollout of vaccines that we'll be seeing a positive outcome.” 

Depending on enrollment, the university could see a variety of budget outcomes. On one end, scenario A includes decreased enrollment numbers similar to fall 2020’s enrollment. On the other, scenario B includes an increase in new students in the fall, Gallant said. 

“We’ll see the gap shrink and in fact become a net positive by the end of the biennium in scenario B. In scenario A, we are able to [maintain funding] well through the biennium, but still have some issues to deal with by the end of it, depending on the direction of enrollments,” Gallant said. 

There is no confirmation on which scenario will be more likely yet, as outstanding factors like enrollment still remain unknown.

“A crisis is a rare opportunity to reorganize, prioritize, and most importantly, refocus the mission. In that process, viable organizations are likely to find the resources to survive and then grow stronger and more successful,” Doron Levit, associate professor of finance and business economics at the University of Washington, said in an email.

Navigating the transition from online classes to in-person will also be considered in the 2021-2023 budget.

“We will have continued [COVID-19] related costs associated with opening up,” Gallant said. “At this stage, the [Incident Management Team] is looking at what the best way to do it from a health and safety perspective is. We don’t have a fixed plan and cost associated with that yet, but those are the types of things that we’re starting to pencil in and we’ll hopefully know more about as we get closer to building that budget for the 2021-2023 biennium.”

Budgeting will require the consideration of unpredictable factors, Levit said.

“New budgets have to factor in systemic health risk, and the operational costs of opening and closing campuses,” Levit said. “They should also plan for investment in technology to enable higher education to properly function when in-person interactions are limited.” 

As Western prepares its budget proposal for the biennium, prospective students are considering their own options. Sam Nazy, a South Puget Sound Community College first-year, planned to attend Western in fall 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic moved the university online. 

“I decided to wait because classes were all online, so I wanted to save money at a community college and then transfer my credits,” Nazy said. 

Though there are many pieces that go into the decision making of university financial planning during a pandemic, Gallant stressed the importance of moving forward. 

“I think the message I am trying to keep us focused on is we need to be paying attention to the budget over the biennium as we’re making wise decisions with good financial stewardship, but we also need to keep moving forward as an institution,” Gallant said. 

Western community members can review and comment input on internal budget proposal requests here.

Zoë Parker is a campus news reporter for The Front and a third-year public relations student minoring in international business and the German language. Her work focuses on Western’s budget, administration and Board of Trustees, as well as other campus-related news. You can contact her at zoeparker.thefront@gmail.com.


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