Whitman College President Kathleen Murray stands on campus with the Memorial Building behind her.

Whitman College President Kathleen M. Murray was recently interviewed by Hilary Jones, higher-education editor for The Business Journals.

In the Q&A, Murray spoke about how “thrilling” it has been to have students—including the largest entering class in the history of the college—back on campus, and discussed some of the COVID-19 precautions Whitman has taken to allow that to happen.

Much of the interview focused on Whitman’s Early Financial Aid Guarantee, which lets prospective students and their families calculate precisely how much assistance they would receive before they even decide whether to apply. Murray said the tool, which has also been highlighted in The New York Times, is one of the her greatest sources of pride as president. She continued:

I am a first-generation college student myself, and there's no way I could have gone to a private institution of higher education without significant scholarship assistance. My parents were enormously supportive, but they really didn't know how to navigate that landscape. It's been one of my goals to help future generations of students have that same opportunity. So, we know it's incredibly expensive and I don't have a solution for that cost model. So what we need to do is help students figure out how to be able to pay for the very high-touch, high-cost experience that we provide. Two years ago, we piloted this program and then last year we were able to launch it more broadly where we will give students a thorough preview of their financial aid package before they even apply. And as far as we know, we're one of two colleges in the country able to do this right now, and the students are guaranteed that amount of financial aid unless their family's financial situation changes in either direction. They can see how much money they'll get in scholarships and financial aid. They can request that any time from July through December. All they have to do is give us their five standard financial aid forms. We'll do the study we'll share it with them. This is a way that a student who might not have looked at us because of that sticker price can see what it would really cost. We do send financial aid packages with admission, (but with this tool) you don't get all excited about being admitted only to figure out you can't afford it. This year 86 students have requested the early financial-aid guarantee. We've sent out 74 packages so far. Last year, the students who received the early financial-aid guarantee were more than twice as likely to enroll.

The other piece that's interesting for me is the early-decision pool. Students who apply to just one college and agree to attend college there if admitted tend to skew wealthy. They've visited early; they've done their research. With the early financial-aid guarantees, the early decision pool reflected the average need that we saw in our overall applicant pool. We leveled that playing field for early decision. I think that's very helpful for less well-resourced families to have that early decision opportunity.

Murray also spoke about her plans to retire earlier than planned and why she felt it was the right time for new leadership at Whitman.

I had planned that I would be Whitman's president for 10 years and they wrote an initial five-year appointment (when I started) and I had pre-Covid signed a five-year extension. And you know, I read a statement that has really stuck with me. This pandemic was in many ways, an accelerator of changes that were already underway. Whitman knew that we would have to do some really important tightening of our budget before this demographic cliff that we're all reading about here. We were overstaffed for our size. When I arrived, we had just over an eight-to-one student faculty ratio. We just aren't that wealthy. That's just not sustainable for us. I knew as I signed that second contract that over the five-year period, we were going to have some tough choices to make and we were going to have to right-size this budget. And then with Covid, I realized we had to do that immediately. Last year, we did a very thorough, collaborative and participatory financial sustainability review and we made some tough decisions. In the end, we only needed to cut about 5% of our budget. But that's real and those are real people. I felt like we had to do that and having done it, it would be time for a new president to come in and take over. And so, I decided both personally and for the college, it was just the right time for me to step away.

Asked about her priorities before retiring, Murray put keeping the campus safe during the COVID-19 pandemic at the top of her list, along with raising as much money as possible for some of the college’s growing academic programs and especially for scholarships and financial aid.

The full interview is available online (behind a paywall).