At my new student orientation freshman year in 2008, the welcoming speakers emphasized Pomona’s wealth. With an endowment, at the time, of $1.9 billion, Pomona could apparently fund anything a student could imagine. Trips to exotic places, crazy parties, and luxurious quarters were merely a few of the amenities that I could expect in my time at Pomona. Unfortunately, these sentiments were short-lived. On Sept. 15, just weeks after orientation, Lehman Brothers collapsed. The stock and real estate markets followed shortly thereafter, with the stock market falling to less than half of its value by March 2009. Abruptly, the economy was deep in the worst recession in decades, and everyone was a lot less wealthy than they had been previously—including Pomona.
The belt-tightening felt around campus after the peak of the financial crisis was not as acute as it was for many other educational institutions, or for many of the families of the students on campus. Many of the items that were cut—the much-heralded Death by Chocolate comes to mind—in retrospect have more in common with the bubble-fueled indulgences of Wall Street bankers than perhaps they should have. Beyond these sensible budget-trims, however, students, faculty, and staff shared the pain as work allotments were cut, pay was frozen, and other painful measures were taken.
As the economic recovery begins to take hold in the United States, some of Pomona’s investments will recover. The endowment has already started growing again, as the stock markets have bounced back and the Daring Minds campaign has kicked into gear. Undoubtedly, there is still a period of frugality ahead for the College, but at some point, Pomona will be looking for new ways to spend rather than cut.
When Pomona finally starts looking at the budget with an eye to expand, spending needs to prioritize enhancing the value of a Pomona degree. We should learn from our mistakes and avoid the extravagance that (I’m told) marked the period leading up to the recession. Instead, we need to focus on improving Pomona College. We need to see how the most competitive institutions of higher learning are using their endowments, and either follow or improve upon their blueprints.
In 2006, Harvard University introduced a policy that guaranteed that students with parents making less than $60,000 annually would not pay tuition or room and board. While Pomona College has terrific financial aid, it does not yet offer such a guarantee. Financial aid improvements do not just benefit the financial aid recipients, because drawing more and better applicants to Pomona would increase the value of a Pomona degree. As the endowment recovers, a substantial increase in the amount of money allotted for financial aid would make Pomona more competitive with similar institutions.
Pomona should also give greater financial support for the expansion of undergraduate career opportunities. Funding unpaid summer internships should be a priority. Many colleges offer stipends to students with unpaid summer internships, but, aside from the Summer Undergraduate Research Program, Pomona does not. Students with better career experience during their undergraduate years are proven to be more successful as graduates in the job market, and Pomona will eventually reap (some of) the dividends of their improved careers.
Obviously, to turn a favorite Pomona slogan on its head, Pomona is not the Harvard University of the West. Harvard’s endowment, enrollment and academic programs are many times larger than Pomona’s. Only Harvard and a few other peer institutions can afford such generous financial aid and career support programs. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that these programs benefit both students and the institution itself. Pomona should follow suit if and when it can.