Despite the economic downturn, which has severely impacted higher education, this year Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) welcomed its largest-ever freshman class, along with 23 new full-time faculty members—an all-time-high. The university also announced that it completed its last fiscal year with an operating surplus of approximately $8 million (six percent).
"We have planned well, managed well, invested well, and we have also been fortunate," said WPI President Dennis Berkey. "Over the past five years, WPI has made strategic investments in the life sciences, and introduced innovative academic programs that have met with strong demand. Plus, our donors have stepped forward in challenging times to invest in campus facilities. These investments have paid dividends in the success of our students, the growth in our enrollment, and the positive impact on our community."
WPI's news comes at a time when The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting that the financial crisis "has shaken higher education systems throughout the Northeast." In contrast, WPI is growing as the result of strategic and sustained investment in the institution’s distinctive academic mission, along with conservative financial management.
"These impressive achievements result directly from the increasing recognition of WPI's strong value proposition—an education that prepares students exceedingly well for success on the job, in the professions, and in graduate and professional study," commented Berkey. "In addition, they result from a strong response to the economic downturn by our faculty and staff, helping make an already well-run institution even more efficient and effective."
In fact, the demand for the WPI education has never been greater; this year the university welcomed 930 new undergraduate students, the largest and most diverse class in the university's 144 year-history. The quality of WPI students has also continued to climb; 55 percent of the incoming class of 2013 students ranked in the top 10 percent of their graduating class in high school, and the class has an overall GPA of 3.8 with 345 members achieving perfect 4.0 GPAs in high school.
More students are attending WPI, and they are making their mark on the world when they graduate. For two years straight, a ranking compiled by Payscale.com recognizing colleges and universities that produce the best-paid graduates has placed WPI in the top 10 among all schools for highest starting median salary. According to WPI's Career Development Center, the placement rate for WPI's Class of 2008 was 92 percent.
"With WPI's track record for strong starting salaries and job prospects, it's no wonder we are enrolling students in record numbers," said Kristin R. Tichenor, WPI's vice president for enrollment management. "In this economy, students and parents want to know that their college experience will prepare them for the future, with all of its uncertainties. This year's dramatic increase in enrollment reflects a growing recognition that students value the kind learning experience and outcomes that WPI delivers."
To meet the demands of its growing undergraduate and graduate student populations and to maintain a high level of academic excellence, WPI has expanded its faculty hiring. This year the university welcomed a record 23 new full-time faculty members, a number that represents nearly 10 percent of the faculty complement. "In keeping with WPI's track record of academic excellence, the caliber of this new group of faculty is outstanding," said John Orr, senior vice president and provost for WPI. "We are welcoming new faculty at the assistant professor through professor levels from highly respected institutions of higher education, scientific research and industry—both national and international. WPI is making these investments to insure that our growing student body gets the best education possible."
Due to conservative financial management during the past year's tumultuous economy, WPI is entering this academic year with a record operating surplus of $8 million from last year's operating budget. This was achieved through a number of campus-wide initiatives, including a "frost" on staff hiring—filling only the most mission-critical positions—and the creation of the Presidential Commission on Efficiency and Effectiveness.
"WPI is taking great care to anticipate the impact of the economy and manage its finances with strict adherence to two principles," Berkey said. "The first is to continue to invest in an exceptional educational experience for WPI students. The second is to manage all other costs conservatively to minimize increases for students and families."
Donor gifts have also helped sustain WPI's strategic investment in academic and campus-life facilities. Most recently WPI opened the $11.5 million George I. Alden Life Sciences and Bioengineering Educational Center, made possible by a major gift from the George I. Alden Trust. Over the past five years, WPI has invested close to $100 million in life sciences education and research, most notably via the WPI Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center at Gateway Park, which opened in 2007.
WPI's thoughtful approach to managing the economic stresses of the past year was extended to students and their families through numerous initiatives. In February 2009 the university announced that undergraduate tuition would increase by just 2.9 percent for the 2009-10 academic year — the lowest percentage increase in almost 20 years. In addition, WPI announced the Master's Degree Tuition Incentive Program, which offered members of WPI's Classes of 2004 to 2009 a tuition discount that made it possible to reduce the cost of a master's degree by more than 40 percent and enabled many students to complete a bachelor's and a master's degree in just five years. WPI also offered families the option to pay their bills over the course of 12 months instead of 10.