Changed educational benefit causes stir, saves money

At a town hall forum for faculty and staff on Feb. 28, President Ryken announced that Wheaton will change its Educational Benefit policy for eligible full-time employees. Starting in 2020, eligible full-time employees can have up to 100 percent of their children’s tuition covered if they are accepted and enrolled at Wheaton. If their children attend another CCCU school, up to $16,000 of tuition per year ($8,000 per semester), about half the cost of tuition, will be covered for up to eight semesters.
Wheaton’s current educational benefit for full-time employees covers 90 percent of tuition or 100 percent of net tuition, whichever is less, for the children of these eligible employees who enroll at Wheaton and at other CCCU governing member schools. The new policy benefits students of full-time employees who would otherwise choose Wheaton, but those who had their eyes on another CCCU school will have to pay more.
The change in policy would create a greater incentive for the children of full-time employees to choose Wheaton. When asked whether the college aims to intentionally incentivize enrollment at Wheaton, Vice President for Finance and Operations and Treasurer Dale Kemp replied affirmatively. “Yes … we do hope that more employee dependents will choose Wheaton College as their choice.” He explained, “The financial advantages to the College when faculty and staff families choose a Wheaton education are substantial. Even a modest increase in the number of dependents opting to attend Wheaton — when combined with the estimated savings from a cap on tuition to attend other CCCU schools — eventually would save the college $500,000 or more per year.”
Kemp estimated it would be two to three years before savings are realized. Tucker explained that, “In recent years, the cost of benefits has exceeded the designated budget, prompting ongoing discussions with the Senior Administrative Cabinet about options to reduce our expenses.” Human Resources provided data across a range of possibilities of ways to cut back, including the Educational Benefit.
Wheaton first introduced the educational benefit to attend other CCCU schools in the 1960s as a way to create more slots for “outside students to attend Wheaton at a time when we were flush with applications and turning many students away, including some employee dependents.  Our context is different now because our application numbers are lower,” according to Kemp.
The change in policy comes as a result of ongoing financial and budgetary challenges the college is facing. Kemp explained that operating and employee costs are growing at a greater rate than the college’s ability to raise tuition. Most of these costs come from medical and educational employee benefits.
“As a point of reference, our medical, retirement and educational benefits are projected to run nearly $700,000 over our benchmark in next year’s budget — a jump of nearly $500,000 from the previous year.  The institutional cost of the educational benefit has been rising by nearly 9 percent a year, accounting for roughly $200,000 of the overrun,” Kemp told the Record.
Wheaton has set its employee benefits benchmark at 40 percent of salaries, but as Kemp explained, the college has found it increasingly difficult to maintain benefits at this benchmark. Hence the change in the Educational Benefit, which makes up over $2 million of the roughly $20 million spent on medical, dental, retirement and other employee benefits each year. “We have recently introduced important changes to our health plans — changes that are expected to produce institutional savings. Additional changes are likely to occur as we review our medical benefits closely year by year.”
When asked whether faculty had been consulted in the decision-making process Graves told the Record, “Neither faculty as a whole nor Faculty Council were involved or consulted in the decision-making process.” Kemp confirmed that while faculty and staff are regularly consulted regarding changes in benefits they were not canvassed regarding this particular change.
Many professors feel the college has broken their trust. Vice Chair of Faculty Council Michael Graves noted, “Some faculty have articulated that they believe the college has not acted in good faith because, although the written policy associated with employee benefits states that specific benefits can and may be changed, these faculty have articulated that they chose to work at Wheaton (in part, at least) because of the benefit, and they understood the educational benefit to be part of what was used to recruit them. To change the benefit, therefore, is seen as a break of trust.”
Rather than seeing the educational policy change as a breach of trust, associate professor of education Jon Eckert affirmed his commitment to Wheaton and expressed concern, “I am at Wheaton because I believe in its mission and the amazing students we have here. I hope my own children will consider coming to Wheaton; however, I am uncertain what the benefit will be when that time comes as policy has changed twice in my nine years here.”
Graves characterized any change to the educational benefit as a highly sensitive matter. “Many faculty have expressed deep sadness about the change in the educational benefit, often because these faculty members understood this benefit to be a key aspect of their life’s work by which they could provide something important for their children. In the case of faculty members, many expended much time, energy and money to become college teachers, earning less than they perhaps might have in other fields. They did this, of course, for the love of students and teaching them; but the educational benefit is, in a sense, a way that makes faculty feel that they can still provide well for their children.”
However Graves is hopeful. “President Ryken has communicated to all employees that he has heard concerns, and he provided further explanations for the change in the educational benefit. I am hopeful that better understanding will be reached by all those concerned.”

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