Making Bethel Affordable and Sustainable

As part of a long-term plan to create a more sustainable financial model, Bethel University announces program changes and position eliminations.

By Suzanne McInroy, director of communications

September 21, 2018 | 3 p.m.

Bethel University

For the past 10 years, like many other sectors, higher education has had to make adjustments because of widespread economic change. For Bethel, the biggest challenge remains keeping a Bethel education affordable for students.

“College costs have continued to rise across the country, but we cannot pass the financial burden to our students,” says Bethel University President Jay Barnes. “Our commitment to this affordability has led to the median college debt for Bethel graduates today to be less than it was in 2006.”

To keep Bethel affordable, the financial aid budget for traditional undergraduate students has more than doubled in 10 years from $16 million in 2008 to more than $34 million in 2017. As a result, 99% of traditional undergraduate students receive financial aid at Bethel through scholarships and grants, making the average net tuition price per student less than $22,000.

However, during the same 10-year period, enrollment in three of Bethel’s four schools—the College of Arts & Sciences, the College of Adult & Professional Studies and Bethel Seminary—has decreased.  Only enrollment in the Graduate School has increased in the last 10 years. With more than 90% of Bethel’s income coming from tuition, room, and board, enrollment declines added to increasing financial aid has made balancing the budget difficult.

In June 2014, a group of trustees, faculty, and administrators began to tackle the budget challenges during a nine-month strategic planning exercise to develop a vision and set of strategic objectives to guide the university through the next 10 years. Creating a sustainable financial model was included in the list of Strategic Goals adopted by the Board of Trustees in February 2015.

Changes Announced

To create a more sustainable financial model for Bethel, in the spring seven working groups comprised of faculty, staff, and administrators were established to review operating expenses, structures, and enrollment data to identify reductions and reallocations of funds as well as identify new initiatives to increase enrollment and generate new revenue. At the end of the summer, four of the seven groups submitted cost-saving recommendations to the President’s Cabinet for review. (Reports from the remaining three working groups are due later this academic year.)

Cabinet reviewed those recommendations, made modifications in some cases, and released the first set of decisions this week. Cabinet is still reviewing the recommendations from the College of Adult & Professional Studies, Bethel Seminary, and Graduate School working group.

“These were difficult decisions to make, but we established a good process that would help us find ways to make strategic and sustainable changes, but also think of innovative ideas. We wanted to find new ways to do things we’ve always done well while also saving money,” says Deb Harless, executive vice president and provost.

Beginning in the spring and continuing into the fall, Bethel restructured and eliminated staff and administrative positions from the Cabinet level down. “It is important to note that our work was focused on more than just eliminating positions,” says Cara Wald, chief human resources and strategy officer at Bethel University. “There were intentional conversations about what we needed to stop doing and how we could do our work together differently.”

In the College of Arts & Sciences (CAS), Cabinet announced decisions this week to discontinue the Department of Theatre at Bethel, including the departmental majors and minors. Other majors and minors that have been eliminated include: (majors) sociology, media production, independent filmmaking, physical education K-12, and health education 5-12; (minors) film studies. Students in majors that will be eliminated will be able to complete their degrees at Bethel.

Finally, Cabinet reviewed Bethel’s health plan and determined that enhanced budget management will allow Bethel to develop a reserve for the health plan that will provide increased financial stability if unexpected health plan expenses occur.

Strong Future

Despite the current challenges facing Bethel and all of higher education, Bethel remains one of the largest and strongest private Christ-centered universities in the U.S., says Barnes.

“Our professors continue to be recognized for their research with National Science Foundation grants. Our student athletes continue to receive awards for their performance on and off the field,” says Barnes. “And we continue to have high graduation rates—fulfilling our mission and living out part of our vision—to engage the world’s most challenging problems to God’s glory and for our neighbors’ good.”