As I write this letter, our country is again experiencing a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases. Improvements in testing, contact tracing, and treatments are helping, and vaccines will soon be available. However, too many have been lost already, and even more have been affected by this terrible virus. I hope that you and those you care about are well. Our thoughts and prayers are with those directly impacted by this pandemic.
As you likely know, the lack of testing at the time and the ever-changing health emergency led us to deliver classes remotely this fall semester. The success of our virtual courses is a testament to the commitment and effort of our faculty, staff, and students. It has been trying, but everyone has worked diligently to support each other and ensure our students succeed. We plan to welcome students back to campus for some experiential courses in December and January. And we are hopeful that students will be on campus and classes held in person once again for our spring semester.
In addition to the devastating health impact of the pandemic, the entire world is facing severe financial consequences. Wilson College, like so many higher education institutions, feels that growing financial challenge acutely. The fiscal year that closed June 30 ended with a healthy operating gain. This was largely thanks to a 25 percent increase in the Wilson Fund (thank you!), a Payroll Protection Program loan that converted to a grant, and strong expense management that included difficult decisions affecting our faculty and staff.
Enrollment for the fall was a mixed bag. We are enjoying our second largest enrollment in the College’s history at 1535, but this is significantly down from 1618 last fall. This is largely due to new student numbers falling sharply. Overall, we are down five percent, with our traditional undergraduate enrollment declining three percent. Remarkably, retention of our first-year students to their second year increased from 67 percent to 68.2 percent.
Between the enrollment declines and the loss of room and board and other auxiliary revenues this fall, revenue is projected to be down by nearly $3 million.
We are fortunate that this projected decline is less than it would have been thanks to federal funding, a significant number of unrestricted bequests, and the decision to increase our endowment spend rate to seven percent. While things may change based on spring enrollment and the situation with the virus, we project an operating gain for the current year. But this gain is only possible due to the difficult decisions regarding employee compensation, furloughs, and layoffs.
I share this with you in the spirit of transparency. While our operating gains provide a moment of accomplishment, they are largely due to one-time funding sources and extensive expense management. And the decrease in first-year students will impact us financially for four years. Wilson, like so many other organizations, faces extreme challenges due to the pandemic. And yet, our community is responding. Our Strategic Action and Planning effort continues to find ways to increase revenue and decrease expenses while preserving the outstanding student experience for which we are known. I look forward to sharing more with you about this in the future.
As always, we count on your support. Wilson is the outstanding college that it is because of the support of our alumnae, alumni, and friends. We hope to pass the $1 million mark for the Wilson Fund again this year, but we can only do it with your help.
And, of course, if you would like to do more for the College now or in your estate plans, we would love to speak with you. And we truly appreciate your recommendation of students to help grow our enrollment. Together, as #OneWilson, we will help ensure that Wilson changes the lives of students for years to come. Thank you for your commitment to this remarkable institution. Stay safe!
Wesley R. Fugate