Belmont is one of the fastest growing universities in the nation as recognized by The Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac, but the rising enrollment means Belmont’s campus is straining to accommodate growing class sizes.
From 2001 to 2011, Belmont’s student population increased 104 percent.
And this fall, the university reached 6,915 students with 1,409 graduate students and 5,506 undergraduates.
But what many people may not realize is that the line trajectory of student population has begun to flatten out, said university President Dr. Bob Fisher. “I mean we are not growing 9, 8, or 7 or 6” percent, he said.
“We were 4 percent last year, and we are 4 percent this year. That’s not big growth numbers in my experience. Those are just healthy moves,” Fisher said.
While the student population growth rate has slowed, other aspects of Belmont’s campus are experiencing significant growth spurts.
From construction to the endowment rate, the university is seeing growth, but not without some growing pains.
In higher education, there are a few indicators for the strength of a school: retention rates, overall campus growth and endowment.
“Endowment is certainly one of those areas you look at for the strength of an organization. People always ask, particularly in higher education, what is your endowment because that’s a permanent fund,” Vice President of Developments Bo Thomas said.
Endowment refers to a pool of money that is essentially “a big savings account” a university raises over time and invests to acquire income to pay for certain scholarships, endowed chairs and program specific funding, Vice President of Finances and Operations Steve Lasley said.
And with the wrapping up of multiple construction projects, Belmont’s administration feels that now is the time to shift focus toward increasing that last indicator of university strength.
“We’ve put an emphasis on in the past few years of building the type of academic facilities to match our students. We’ve really invested a lot of money in physical facilities,” Thomas said. “In every case, most everyone has applauded those efforts.”
University President Dr. Bob Fisher agrees.
“Now I think it’s time for us to focus in on building our endowment to a level that we can sustain tuition and help manage to not have large increases,” he said.
With the prior strategic focus on building academic facilities, Thomas believes the national standing achieved by the physical growth will help in the next phase of monetary growth.
“And I think that attractiveness and visibility will help us attract more funds for the endowment in this next phase from say 2015 to 2020,” he said.
The university’s current endowment fluctuates between $85 million and $90 million, with the last valuing of the funds settling at $88 million. While Belmont has been able to make significant strides in the last five years, it is still off from the Vision 2015 goal of doubling the endowment from $62.5 million.
“For a school our size, that is not considered a large amount of money,” Lasley said. “Most schools that would be about our size would have about $200 million in endowment.”
Both Lasley and Thomas agree that there are underlying factors for Belmont’s lack of funds, but Thomas is a bit more optimistic about the university’s ranking among comparable schools.
“I think we would compare favorably with any other small, private, Christian institution that has started in the mid-50s, but not so when we compare ourselves with some of the private institutions established much longer,” Thomas said.
Elon University, the top South Region university according to U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking, has an endowment of over $132 million. Former Atlantic Sun foe Mercer University has almost $192 million in endowment, while fellow Christian institution Samford University has just over $289 million.
Lipscomb University, on the other hand, only has an endowment of $55.8 million.
The disparity between Belmont and some of its peers’ endowment funds causes some problems for the university like maintaining a competitive tuition rate.
Belmont has, however, managed to keep the tuition increases lower the past few years.
“I think this year was 4.8 or 4.9 percent,” Fisher said. “We’ve had tuition increases as high as 8 before, so we are trying to keep those down.”
Endowment “is very difficult to raise” and can only be built up in two ways: investments and direct gifts.
Lasley oversees the investing of the endowment and said that last year was a good year in terms of market returns.
“I don’t recall the amount but it earned more than 12 percent return on the investments, so that helped a lot because we had some real negative years,” he said.
The other method for growing the pool of funds deals less with market know-how and more with people skills.
Thomas and his office spend time building relationships with possible donors, reminding current alumni of the opportunities to give and helping donors “give to their passions.”
“Our goal is just to convert as many of our friends we’ve made over the last 10 years into significant contributors to Belmont, and hopefully many of those will be through endowed funds of some kind,” Thomas said.
The money received as gifts typically comes with stipulations or restrictions on the funds. Most of those restrictions are to set up scholarships.
“Out of about $88 million, probably about $78 million of it is restricted and $10 million of it is unrestricted,” Lasley said. “And out of that restricted money, almost all of it is scholarship.”
As part of the university’s push to increase the diversity of students, Belmont targets over 95 percent of the endowment income to student scholarships.
“We certainly don’t want to just attract students that can afford to come here,” Thomas said. “A lot of our students receive financial aid so we would like to make Belmont more attractive by having more and more scholarships available to them.”
Belmont’s still increasing student population continues to play into the growing need for a larger endowment.
Check the Vision tomorrow for the final “growing pains” story on how Belmont’s spike in student growth is impacting campus life in general.