Wesley College plots long-term strategic plan

DOVER — Wesley College, which recently received $1 million in state funding, is expected to present a plan for its long-term sustainability to state officials in the coming months.

In June, the State News reported Wesley is facing financial difficulties and was scheduled to have its revenues and expenses reviewed by an outside firm as part of an agreement with the state.

“We have spoken to the folks at Wesley College and we’re concerned about the financial situation that they’re in, and there’s been a lot of conversations about the best way to help them with their financial situation, and I don’t know that we’ve come up with — or anybody’s come up with — an acceptable approach to that at this juncture,” Gov. John Carney said at the time.

As part of the state’s efforts to help the small private school, lawmakers expanded a fund created the year before. The Higher Education Economic Development Investment Fund, which was initially intended primarily for the University of Delaware, Delaware State University and Delaware Technical Community College, received more money and new guidelines this year.

While the prior budget included $1.375 million for Wesley to renovate the former Dover Public Library located on South State Street and $10 million for the three public institutions, the current year’s spending plan contains $20 million for the fund.

Additionally, the bond bill allows Wesley to use that $1.375 million for operating purposes (with the caveat it eventually puts the same amount of its own money toward turning the old library into a health science facility) and the legislation opens the fund to all higher education institutions in the state.

Any college or university can apply as long as the money will go toward “projects and efforts that will help create or retain a significant number of high quality, full-time jobs and/or continue to provide access to higher education opportunities for in-state residents.”

Although only Wesley has been allocated money from the fund so far, at least one other private college in the state is interested in doing so. The identity of that school has not been revealed.
As for Wesley, it asked for $2.2 million from the committee in charge of reviewing requests. That body, which consists of the secretary of state, director of management and budget, controller general and co-chairs of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Capital Improvement, agreed to grant the college “up to” $2 million.

So far, the liberal arts school has been given $1 million to help it overcome the gap that separates the spring and fall semesters.
If it is to receive any money beyond that amount, Wesley must first provide a detailed strategic plan that lays out how it might increase enrollment and bring in more funding.

“I think as we move forward in an ongoing conversation with Wesley, (key) is being able to see the college develop a sustainable plan going forward, one where it continues to provide access to higher education opportunities for Delaware residents and continuing to have a strong economic impact on downtown Dover,” Mike Jackson, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said last week.

“It does occupy 19 buildings and 50 acres of land, but more importantly, approximately a thousand students that are attending the college. Almost half of those are Delaware residents.”

Mr. Jackson referred other questions about the college’s future to Wesley officials. Wesley College President Robert Clark could not be reached for comment.

Coordination between the state and the school is currently being handled by the executive branch. Lawmakers are only tangentially involved, and the city and county are not part of discussions and future planning, according to state officials.

Wesley’s proposal is expected to be complete around the beginning of November.

Because the school is private, the exact details of its plight are not publicly known. Several emails sent by college administrators to state budget officials and obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request contained thorough redactions of financial data.

Other financial information provides a picture of Wesley’s financial situation. According to Internal Revenue Service documents filed with GuideStar, which maintains a database of nonprofit tax forms, Wesley reported total revenue of about $48.3 million and expenses of $49 million in 2016, with approximately $25.3 million in net assets.

In 2015, its revenue came to nearly $50.8 million, while its costs were a little more than $51.2 million. It had approximate revenue of $49.5 million in 2014, with expenses of about $49.2 million.

Information for more recent years was not available.
According to Wesley’s website, its undergraduate enrollment was 1,228 in the fall of 2018, down 219 from the year before and 372 five years prior. Of those 1,228 students, 1,125 were full-time.

The issues Wesley appears to be facing are far from unique to it. Outlets like the Chronicle of Higher Education have reported small private schools across the country are grappling with enrollment and financial problems that could force some to close their doors.

Rumors about Wesley’s situation and potential fate have swirled for months, as evidenced by two emails from the college’s president. On March 14, in a message to Wesley faculty, President Clark shot down “uninformed & untrue” speculation about Wesley being bought out. Almost two weeks later, he sent another email to college personnel reiterating “there is no plan, or talk of anyone buying Wesley out, nor are there plans to close.”

According to University of Delaware spokeswoman Andrea Boyle Tippett, there were conversations between UD and Wesley earlier this year, but they had stopped by June.
Evidently, at least some Wesley pupils were aware of the speculation in the spring: An April article in the Whetstone, the student newspaper, detailed questions and fears about the school’s financial situation. According to the story, rumors started around the end of 2018.

While doubters question why the state is helping a private entity, others note Wesley is tied into the fabric of central Delaware.

“If this wasn’t Wesley College, if this were a business, we’d still be talking about 200 employees, $100 million in economic impact,” Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican and alumnus of the school, said in June.

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