SPU combats budget deficit

The Seattle Pacific budget undergoes academic and administrative reform

Ella Beth Sessions and Audrey Oscarson

Seattle Pacific University is facing a budget deficit for the third year in a row, following the trend of many private institutions. The university is attempting to combat falling revenue with academic, administrative and budgetary reform. 

Kim Sawers, vice president for business and finance at SPU, has been navigating the university’s decreasing revenue, which is largely impacted by decreasing enrollment.

“The budget is really driven by three things: tuition rate, enrollment and financial aid,” Sawers said. “Enrollment is going down and, even though you would hope expenses move in the same direction as revenue, they don’t. In higher ed, we’re all fixed costs. I’m a fixed cost; the building’s a fixed cost. We’re left with how to readjust our cost structure to match our revenue.”

Caleb Malabuyo, a freshman majoring in visual communication, attributes the decrease in enrollment to the pandemic’s effect on student mentality.

“COVID gave everyone all the tools to stay in distance learning. A lot of people I know were already nervous about college and the fact that it was so easy to do it online at community colleges made it even easier to stay home,” Malabuyo said.

From 2015 to 2022, SPU’s total enrollment decreased from 4,175 to 3,114, more than a 17% decrease, but tuition dipped from $36,684 to $36,504, a difference of less than $200. SPU, maintaining tuition even with lowering enrollment, still has steps to take in order to maintain stability.

Sarah Bassingthwaighte, director of instrumental music and head of composition, is concerned about how the cuts are going to impact students, and has seen the impacts of the tight budget already.

SPU enrolment numbers have been decreasing while the number of programs has increased and tuition has remained relatively constant.   (Shianne Herman)

“In the music department itself, it’s really spread thin,” Bassingthwaighte said. 

While many universities are experiencing decreases in enrollment, SPU is also dealing with legal trouble. The recent lawsuit submitted by a group of students, faculty and alum cites the controversial hiring policy as the reason why SPU is struggling financially.

“The university is now financially and structurally imploding,” the lawsuit said on line 27. “The university faces a major budget deficit. Its enrollment is in decline.”

Yet students still remain the top priority among the cuts. Sawers, formerly a professor of accounting in SPU’s School of Business, Government and Economics, values the student experience as the budget is reformed.

“The quality of our programs is first and foremost in our minds. On the academic side of the house, we’re doing what’s called Program Prioritization,” she said. “It may be that we have programs we offer that aren’t highly subscribed. It could be that we offer way too many sections. The focus is on student experience and how to continue to serve the students we have in a high quality way.”

This reevaluation could make it harder for students to plan long-term schedules as availability of classes, programs and majors is decreasing in the university’s attempt to match revenue to expenses.

“In light of these budget cuts, I am nervous specifically about the arts, which is under the umbrella of my major,” Malabuyo said.

Budget reform on the administrative side of SPU includes similar cuts and reorganization. 

“In the finance area, we had considerable turnover, so we removed one position from the unit. All of a sudden we can do it in such a way that we still serve the community but with fewer people. Will we be able to serve all people in the way they like? No. Will we still get the job done? Yes,” Sawers said.

As SPU navigates the budget cuts, it is important that students speak up for what their needs are and where the school should be focusing its budget.

“I don’t presume to know what the needs of the students are now,” Sawers said. “I want to hear. Especially as people are thinking through where to reinvest and where to cut back, we want to make sure it’s [in] the right places. You can help us with that.”  

While these financial struggles are causing stress on many at the university, there is still a strong conviction among the SPU community to make students receive a quality education.     

“Faculty, staff and students have really come together and worked super hard,” Bassingthwaighte said. “It’s amazing how much people care.”