The future cost of present unhappiness among Union students

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I am an economics major. I believe in the power of incentives and rational expectations. For example, when I applied to live off-campus for my senior year, there were strong incentives: the ability to live with a large group of my friends, the opportunity to gain experience having a landlord, paying rent, distributing house duties and the option to live outside the reach of campus safety (or so I thought).

Accompanied by these strong incentives was a rational expectation to be released. Since people base expectations on past experiences, and since students trying to live in the house I applied to had been released every year in the recent past, I expected this trend to continue. Luckily for me it did.

Unluckily, for the class of 2018 they experienced the equivalent of Oct. 15, 2008, the day with a daily return on the S&P 500 of -9.03 percent, the day Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, the day that rational expectations collapsed. That is to say, some 45 percent of off-campus applications for the class of 2018 were denied.

While comparing the crash of 2008 to the disappointment of rising seniors may seem overly dramatic, from a student’s perspective, it is a fair analogy. Like the day Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, Feb 8, 2017, was a signal that systems are failing. I have written in the past about students’ desires and needs. My appeals yielded precisely zero action from the administration.

The student handbook, for example, remains riddled with errors, including the errors I so nicely pointed out in a previous article. Despite this lack of encouragement, I will attempt to appeal directly to the administrators. Like any business, Union aims to maximize its revenue.

According to FY2016 financials, student tuition and fees account for nearly 70 percent of Union’s gross revenue. Thus, when Union looks to increase revenue, it turns first to its students as its largest revenue stream. The tactic to keep as many students as possible on campus is from this perspective, logical. Fees for room and board are roughly $12,600 for the 2016-2017 academic year. Keeping an additional 100 students on campus raises annual revenue by approximately $1.3 million.

Union’s revenues are, however, not a concern – Union’s current revenues of roughly $158 million more than cover Union’s $129 million of expenses. The real concern is Union’s endowment. Union’s total wealth in FY2016 is around $550 million. The wealth of such peer institutions, however, as Hamilton, Bucknell and Colby is much higher: $883 million, $817 million and $925 million, respectively. Union clearly faces a more serious challenge in this respect than covering its annual expenses. If Union wants to catch up with its peers, two things are necessary: first, a positive return on the endowment, and second, a larger investment base. The second is made possible through gifts to the college.

Which brings me to a crucial argument: disgruntled, disappointed students graduate and become disgruntled, disappointed alumni and alumnae. From my experience, cold-calling alumni for College Relations, I can assure you that disgruntled, disappointed alums donate on average $0 to Union’s annual fund. And we all know that Union cannot afford lower alumni-giving rates.

Dissatisfied alums not only give at lower rates, thus yielding a smaller investment base and a smaller endowment, but they can also cause problems for future student attraction. Union boasts that every year more and more students apply for admission. This is true: total applications have increased 16.4 percent since academic year 2011-2012. Matriculation, however, or the percentage of students who come to Union once accepted, has decreased.

In academic year 2015-2016 only 24.7 percent of students who were accepted to Union decided to attend Union. This data suggests that the 75 percent of accepted students who did not accept their offers did not consider Union a first choice. But as we know, to attract the best students, to move up in the rankings, Union needs to be the first choice of more students.

Creating more disappointed students and dissatisfied alumni will hardly be the best way to increase matriculation. The power of Union’s alumni network as a recruiting tool should not be underestimated.

Many high school students will never have heard of Union until their neighbor tells them about how great their experience was at Union, or an aunt shares stories about her term abroad experience or an alum tells them about what an amazing experience it was to live off-campus. Word of mouth is everything. The connections we foster with alumni are crucial for justifying Union’s price tag. If fewer students enroll, and matriculation falls even lower, then revenues will fall, and there will indeed be a serious problem in terms of covering expenses. Union’s administration faces two possible routes.

I call route one the “Let Lehman Fail” option. This option entails continuing to increase annual revenues by approximately 0.8 percent annually by forcing an additional 100 students to live on campus, thus creating disgruntled, displeased students, who tell prospective students that they do not enjoy Union, and angry alumni who are unwilling to contribute to the school, potentially shrinking our already weak endowment, and lowering matriculation further.

Alternatively, the administration can choose route two, which I call “The Bailout.” This option includes letting students who wish to live off-campus do so, which makes them feel as though this institution is not a business driven solely by the bottom line, but rather is a place where students are valued members of the community whose voices are heard and whose needs and desires are considered. This helps create happy students and happy alumni who want to contribute to the school, fortify the alumni network, and strengthen Union’s reputation. So, administrators, the choice is yours.

16 COMMENTS

  1. This article hits the nail on the head. The school seems more concerned with its marketing appeal rather than current student happiness. In a subtle way, the author reminds the administration that a small school like Union is made great not from stringent rule and control over students, but rather from accepting and flourishing in its own identity- work hard play hard, and have a small lifetime of fond memories when thinking back on our time at Union. We are rapidly losing our identity as a school while striving to be something we are not, creating a generation of unhappy future alumni.

  2. Currently the problem I am focusing on is the very distinct social fracturing that the administration has shamelessly let persist. When I say social fracturing I am not implying that Union students don’t talk to each other, but the fact that so many Union students have no idea what the hell is going on on campus. Between the campus emails and identity crises of the Minerva program I definitely think that there are a plethora of social problems that this campus needs to address in order to make its students feel invested. Maybe if we write “We aren’t satisfied!” on the Administrations foreheads they may get a hint?

  3. Another important point regarding Union running the school like a business:

    Union has a unmentioned clause (nowhere in the student handbook or online, to the best of my knowledge) that automatically releases any student that is ‘at least one year older than ‘most’ of the students in their given grade’ (talk about vague). This has been used for years to grant off-campus release to the older hockey players on campus. This year, current sophomores are being released for the next school year simply because they are older. Business-wise, a great decision, as Union hockey likely generates a good amount of revenue for the school. But as the author said, do the hockey players bring that much more value than us regular students, that they should automatically be released?

  4. Well said. This school has lost sight of everything. How I pictured myself and this school as the current junior I am is so different it isn’t even funny. Fighting for everything at every single turn has honestly drained me. Its tiring, its depressing, and theres got to be an end. If they took the time to care, analyzed their students more then those one question surveys I occasionally get, they would probably realize the mood on this campus has never been lower. Pull your head out of your ass Union and just look around.

  5. What a great perspective on how the current students feel. It is sad to hear there has been no update on your previous articles, and this worries me. If the administration could so easily ignore the many discrepancies in the student handbook, they will surely choose to ignore the interests and needs of the current students. I suppose the schools biggest asset here is that every one of those students will be gone in four years, which is why I am glad you connected these marginalized students to the schools future prosperity.

  6. Thank you for putting the sentiment of a significant portion of the student body into words. While I applaud your digging into the schools financials, I think it is also relevant to discuss where the school plans to house the additional seniors, forced to live on campus each year. Through some simple math and experience with the Office of Residential Life, it is evident that the school does not have enough beds to house the senior class in traditional senior housing. After bringing this to the Office of Residential Life, they told me that they would be happy to give seniors rooms in CPH and Fox, housing with an overwhelming majority of sophomores and juniors. Let us not even get into the number of complications stemming from placing a 22-year-old senior into a dormitory of 18-20 years olds. Regardless, splitting one class of students the year before graduation, into such differing living situations will only leave these students with a bad taste for Union College. It seems you wait three years to obtain some seniority on campus, only for the school to send you back to a dormitory set aside for underclassman.

  7. As an economic major I would hope that the argument would hinge on numbers rather one’s personal experience calling alumni and using that to extrapolate that Union is losing money on the lack of alumni donations. Removing the fluff the essential argument is that Union is a business that would make more money by allowing empty rooms to exist on campus to try and get more money from “disgruntled” alumni. Presumably this population is going to be young alumni, considering there are numerous examples that demonstrate that as more time passes people’s opinions of something tend to skew more positive (one particular example is past President’s approval ratings). While, I don’t have the numbers to support this I would wager that young alumni donations do not make up even a large minority of the total alumni donations. So from a business perspective I have difficulty believing that the donations from current and future disgruntled alumni would cover even the 1.7 million that 100 extra students living on campus.

    The next point is that Union’s main goal is to provide a quality education to its students. There are many aspects to that education. Having a landlord, learning how to pay rent on time, and taking care of a house is not even a fringe part of that education. What is a part of the education is exposing students to people who are different than themselves and gaining unique experiences – something the endowment allows to happen through financial aid and travel grants. As a student, paying for an education, I would rather my school run itself like a business that maximizes its income to ensure that I am able to get the best education possible rather than let students live off campus – especially students that let a single thing of not being able to have the most ideal, perfect senior living experience tinge their entire Union experience and influence their desire to support Union.

    Another charge of the school is to maintain the safety of its students. Off campus housing is scary for the school because it is an area where rules are not easily enforced – “outside the reach of campus safety.” YET, the school is still at risk legally. I encourage one to research what happened at Wesleyan and the sexual assault case (the assault took place at an off-campus house). No matter how unlikely this is to happen at Union, if part of the goal is to create happy students and attract the best students having a scenario where the school ends up legally blaming a victim of sexual assault for his or her own assault does not do that, and is something that is difficult for a school to recover from.

    A “business” argument that hinges on a single persons experience phoning alumni does not seem like something that should nor would I want it sway the college’s decisions.

    As for rankings Union has risen 3 spots from 41 to 38 in the U.S. News and World Report rankings (since 2010-2011).

    • 1) The argument is an economic one. Union clearly does not have an issue remaining in the black with their opperating revenue but is having large issues with their endowment.

      2) Your argument that memories generally tend to become positive over time is false. According to countless psychological studies, memories tend to shift to the extreme of the experience. Meaning a positive memory becomes more positive overtime, where as an excessively negative memory, such as the experience of many current union students, tends to become even more negative in the future.

      3) Your second paragraph is self defeating. You argue that Union should create the best educational experience possible for their students, which even you state is mainly accomplished through endowment spending. The point of the article is to help Union increase their endowment, as opposed to their opperating revenue.

      4) While I agree that off campus housing may not be the safest option, the actions of the school in no way indicate that the safety of off campus students is the motive behind their actions. The houses that were released this year are blocks away from Union, where the majority of the houses denied were directly adjacent to campus. The more distance which Union puts between the off campus housing and campus only serves to increase the likelihood of stabbings, robberies, muggings, shootings, and murders, all of which have happened in the past year or two in the vicinity of the released houses.

      5) Congrats to Union for moving up 3 spots in a poll. I’m sure their short term gains will more than compensate for their massive long term losses.

    • You are misguided in saying that young alumni donations are less important. Union has struggled with donations since the removal of fraternity houses in the early 2000’s. As the NYTimes article about the removal of houses states, ““The majority of the reaction was negative,” says Thomas C. Gutenberger, Union’s vice president for college relations. “They said they would never support the college again, in different types of flowery language.” In the two years after the Minervas were announced, the college lost more than one in 10 of its alumni donors.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/29/education/edlife/minerva.html). 10% of alumni donors were lost. I’m not sure how to convey that fiscally, but it’s surely significant. Union has been attempting to make up for lost donors ever since. To say that Union is not taking the ‘young alumni’ donations seriously is a blatant mischaracterization.

  8. If you’re going to talk about how living off campus is such a desirable and necessary aspect of being a senior in college, then you should spend significantly more time explaining why living off campus is exceptionally better than living on campus. You can live with a bunch of your friends, distribute house duties, and live outside of campus safety in on-campus housing if you’re smart enough about it. The amount of housing on this campus that is like off-campus housing (minus a dishwasher) – like Theme Houses, Seward Apartments, Minveras, or Garnet Commons, which all offer full kitchens and living rooms – is outstanding compared to other institutions!
    There are plenty of things that students already complain about on this campus that would cause them not to give money after they graduate. If students were told that you had to live on campus all four years, I’m sure they would find some other justification to not donate. The 80 disgruntled alumni who don’t get to live off campus for one of their four years are not going to be detrimental to Union’s alumni donations overall. It makes much more sense to me to keep students in housing on campus than increase the overall cost of housing for all students. Union is small. Having 15% of a grade living off campus is the most they can do while balancing the housing budget and keeping all the dorms functioning.
    In terms of the admissions statistics, that number (24.7%) is very misinterpreted. Institutions of our size and ranking across the country have students who are often accepted to a number of equivalent schools in addition to Union. In order to ensure that the class is filled to the proper number, admissions makes sure to accept significantly more students that they are sure are not going to attend. We aren’t Harvard. This is common practice at all schools. Placing too many students on the waitlist is dangerous because they are less likely to accept an offer later on. We don’t want 100% of those students to choose Union or else we would have classes of 1,000 kids. Also, keep in mind that almost 50% of incoming classes are ED students, students who made Union their only choice!

  9. As a current alumni I will never donate to this school. Living off campus with my best friends taught me many lessons that have still remained with me. I am so saddened to see my almamater change so drastically for the better of the administration and not the students.

  10. As a recent alum, class of 2015, this particular issue severely impacted my perception of the college. To get released back then, my friends and I had to basically cause enough negative publicity by way of petitions and concordy articles etc to get the school to cave in. Seeing more people experiencing the same sort of feeling towards union still, ultimately shows me that school hasn’t learned. I’d agree with laura on the simple fact that going for the short term option is not as viable as creating positive long term relationships with students who wish to live off campus. Simple facts are that in my friend group, the bulk of us work for larger financial services firms and will in the future be able to donate to the school… The reality is that I will most likely donate nothing because of the sour taste left in my mouth by Ainlay, Williams and Leavitt.

  11. Laura- you ROCK! Very articulate, logical, persuasive. I’m proud to call you a sister and hope you continue fighting the good fight !!!

  12. Bratty, entitled children strike against the administration again! Your argument that everyone should’ve been released because they’ve always been released in the past is just silly. You saw the 2015 seniors not get released (and throw an equally embarrassing and weak-grounded fit about it) so really, the administration ALREADY set the precedent against releasing every senior who stupidly signed a lease before knowing they could live off campus. The fault here is 100% yours. Don’t want to donate to the college that provided your economics degree (which, for some reason, you are so proudly flaunting as some sort of empowerment for your self-involved argument)? That’s fine. Your temper tantrum will absolutely be for a noble cause!

  13. Claiming that people will choose not to donate to Union based upon the fact that they were forced to live in on-campus housing at a school which has many nicer options than other schools and has a history of denying release requests is hyperbolic and detracts from the real problem: Union’s administration is out of touch with the students and doesn’t care to make the suggested improvements. This has been an increasing problem since the anti-Greek life sentiment and Minerva program started. I’m disappointed that you weakened the real point of the matter by making living on campus like the majority of seniors do seem like the end of the world.

    The real reasons why fewer alumni are donating: the removal or fraternity houses, the anti-greek life attitude of the administration which has persisted, and the fact that most young alumni are poor. Across the countey students are graduating with more debt than ever before and they’re failing to gain jobs in their field of study. Since Union is one of the most expensive colleges in the country, it’s certainly not an exception to this trend. Add to that the fact that many wealthy older Greek alumni chose to stop donating and that some of the young alumni who are lucky enough to have good jobs in their fields choose not to donate because of social problems precipitated by administration throughout their entire time in school and you get the realistic explanation. I am a young alum and I have many young alumni friends.

    You will still have a good senior year living on campus like thousands of students before you did. At the end of the day, where you live senior year won’t be the deciding factor for how you classify your time at Union. A combination of your social and academic experiences over all 4 years and how well you feel Union prepared you for the rest of your life will determine how you remember your time there. However, if a student is are already disillusioned with the administration’s lack of regard for student satisfaction and tendency to rule the school like a business, I can see how this could be a tipping point into bitterness towards Union College.

  14. So much ridiculousness here. If the school is concerned about money and that it why it isn’t letting people live of campus then fine they should say so and presumably they are the final arbiter and that is that. However to argue that students should hold their whist just because the school needs money is not credible. Certainly that is important to the school but it is not nor should it be anywhere on the list of priorities of the school’s current students. The main point of the article seems to me to be the important part. Their is an increasing feeling which I have heard from both teachers and students that the administration doesn’t listen to or care about the needs of the Union community. They rights or wrongs of that are virtually immaterial the administration needs to very quickly change that impression with action on its part they should be responsible to us not the other way around.

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