A conversation with Mark Dingfield, VP for finance and treasurer

Mark Dingfield, who began his role as vice president for finance and treasurer in October, discusses undergraduate financial aid, the University’s finances, and financial wellness.

Mark Dingfield
Mark Dingfield, vice president for finance and treasurer in Penn’s Division of Finance.

In October, Mark Dingfield began his role as vice president for finance and treasurer in Penn’s Division of Finance, following prior holders of the position MaryFrances McCourt and Russell Di Leo, who held the position in an interim capacity and serves as University Comptroller.

Dingfield, who worked at Microsoft and then Princeton before joining Penn in 2017, has personal ties to campus: his wife is a physician at Penn Medicine who came to Penn for her residency and fellowship; they moved to Philadelphia together in 2009. What drew him to Penn, he says, is the breadth of its operations and the scale of its impact.

During his time in the Provost Center, where he served as Associate Provost for Finance and Planning, he put in place a diversity hiring initiative, served as a co-sponsor of the Next Generation Student Systems project resulting in the Pennant suite of tools that launched in 2022, and also co-led the COVID-19 response team that established plans for testing, quarantining, contact tracing, and ultimately bringing students back to campus in spring 2021.

Beyond that, he says, he cherishes his time in the Provost Center as a time of immense learning and mentorship from figures like former Provost and Interim President Wendell Pritchett and the vice provosts.

“I was very fortunate to start my career at Penn in a position that gave me the opportunity to work closely with all 12 schools and with academic leadership. I learned a tremendous amount about the schools, their priorities, and how they operate. Equally important, I learned from the Provost’s team about how to collaborate, effectuate change, and communicate those changes effectively across our decentralized academic enterprise. Those are lessons I think will serve me well in my new role.”

He hopes to similarly serve as a mentor for those in his office, he says.

Dingfield discusses his priorities as VP for finance and treasurer, the rationale behind expanding financial aid for families earning less than $75,000 per year, and what considerations go into short- and long-term financial management of the University.

What were some top priorities coming into the Division of Finance position?

A few things. The first one is we have been working for over a decade on a new student system [Pennant and Path@Penn], which impacts registration, advising, student accounts, and financial aid. It’s fair to say that it was an immensely complex and challenging project, and we had major milestones as I was making the transition. So a key priority for me was listening to feedback from the schools, and then making sure the system was stabilized and that we were able to support it on an ongoing basis. We still have a lot of work to do to continue making the most of this investment.

The second one is, while Penn is in a very strong financial position, we are operating in a much different financial environment than any time in the last four decades. Inflation and interest rates are up significantly, financial markets and the risk of recession inject further uncertainty, and so it was [a priority] to make sure we were doing scenario analyses to look at what the macroeconomic environment would mean for us at Penn, and to start planning around that.

A third was to listen to and get to know the staff, the organization, to fill a couple key roles, and hear what the Division had already been working on and how I could help support and develop the initiatives already in progress.

And a final priority has crystallized for me coming into this job because we provide such a breadth of services across campus, from financial training to research support services to insurance and risk management. It’s been important for me to listen to schools and other campus partners about how these services are being received and how best we as the Division of Finance can support the academic enterprise.

What’s often misunderstood about how Penn manages its finances?

I think the one financial number people know about Penn more than any other is probably the size of our endowment, which at the end of FY22 is $20.7 billion. The biggest misperception that exists, probably within the Penn community but also in general, is that those endowment dollars can be used on any particular purpose the leadership wants to invest in. And that’s hardly the case. In my view, there are a few important concepts for people to know about our endowment.

First, the endowment is not one, big discretionary bucket of money; it is actually made up of 8,400 individual funds. Donors give money to support particular items, such as professorships, financial aid, Penn Medicine, or specific academic programs in the schools, and their contributions are legally restricted to be used on those items. About 90% of the 8,400 funds are donor-restricted for specific purposes. The other 10% is largely made up of funds from the schools that they have designated to support specific purposes. 

Second, by definition, the endowment is meant to provide long-term sustained support for generations of Penn students and faculty. Each year, as part of the budget process, we determine a percentage to pay out from the endowed funds, and that amount is linked to investment performance over a period of several years. In doing this, we try to balance meeting the current needs while maintaining the long-term purchasing power of the endowment so that future generations of students and faculty can also receive these same benefits.

A final important piece of context is that our annual academic operating budget, in other words, excluding the Health System, is about $4.8 billion. While our endowment is a tremendous asset, it only supports 17% of the academic budget. At an institution like Harvard, for example, which has an operating budget only somewhat higher than Penn but with a $51 billion endowment, the income from their endowment supports 36% of their budget. So, while the headline figure of a $20.7 billion endowment seems very large, Penn is reliant on many diverse revenue streams in addition to the endowment to support our operations.

What did you learn from working on Penn’s COVID response team?

It brought the University and Health System together in a more operational way. Now, there’s a lot of closeness in the working relationships. In addition, higher ed has a reputation for working slowly and taking a long time to make decisions and to operationalize them. We decided in fall of 2020 that we were going to establish a COVID testing and tracing program and bring students back for spring 2021, and we implemented a very comprehensive program in about three months that involved numerous offices across the University and Penn Medicine. It taught me we can move quickly if we have a shared sense of purpose across the institution.

Why was the decision made to increase the income cap for financial aid that fully covers tuition, fees, housing, and dining to $75,000? Was it inflation, or something else happening in the background?

Inflation and rising costs to families is certainly something that plays a role here. When we set our policy in 2018 to cover all billed expenses for families with incomes of $65,500 or less, that income threshold was close to the median national income at the time. Our new level of $75,000 puts us above the median income today, which is an important adjustment.

But also, despite the fact that we have a no-loan financial aid program and that our population of borrowers has dropped from 80% of aided students in 2008 to 18% in 2023, we were still seeing a small number of students from families in that lower-income background take on loans that were quite comparable to their expected family contribution. The idea was that we could still do more to potentially relieve the debt obligation the students from those backgrounds had upon graduation. It was an important priority because we want them to graduate with as little debt as possible, which in most cases is zero.

Is Penn unique in providing supplemental funding beyond the standard financial aid package? How was that decided on?

These funding initiatives were born out of the Penn First Plus initiative and have been operationalized and administered by Student Financial Aid in partnership with other offices like Business Services and University Life. They are designed to provide holistic financial support that goes beyond what is traditionally covered in a student’s academic year financial aid package. I think we are a leader in this area and our offerings are very comprehensive.

You’ve seen the list and it ranges from academic regalia for graduation to summer internships and research funding. Also, break meal programs, laptops—our program in terms of the breadth of support we offer is superb. I don’t know how it compares to every other institution, but we have great partnerships in this area across Penn, and I’m proud of the fact that we offer comprehensive support for those incidental expenses that come up during a student’s undergraduate education. One is especially important among those, which is the opportunity for students to do unpaid internships or have unpaid research experiences during their four years here because we know those are not only extremely educational, but also important steppingstones to post-Penn career opportunities. It reduces the stress of having to decide between working and earning money toward summer savings expectations or providing money back to your family.

One exciting thing to note is that several of our initiatives for lower-income students have inspired funding expansions in other areas. For instance, Student Financial Aid now provides $500,000 to Career Services annually to fund unpaid or underpaid internships for middle-income students. Since expanding Career Services’ funding in 2021, we’ve developed similar middle-income partnerships with the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships and Penn Abroad’s Global Research and Internship Program.

What goes into making the decision to determine whether it’s sustainable to do something like raise the income cap for eligibility? What’s going on in the background?

We always examine the budgetary implications of making certain changes. We analyze a variety of potential options, think about the cost, the funding support that would be necessary to make those changes, and we think about what we can afford as an institution. One thing that’s important to remember at Penn is a large portion of our funding comes from tuition revenues generated by the undergraduate schools. We use a percentage of that funding to help finance the undergraduate financial aid budget.

We also look at the data in terms of how to make a meaningful impact on a student’s ability to afford a Penn education. We have an analytical process that looks at things like debt levels and the cost of inflation, and those help us make these kinds of determinations.

Finally, we want to ensure it’s sustainable, so these decisions last beyond the current year. One thing I pay attention to from a budgetary perspective is the percent of our undergraduate aid budget supported by the endowment. The endowment is the best sustaining funding we could have for any of our programs. Right now, approximately 25% of the undergraduate aid budget is funded through the endowment. We lag our peer institutions in this respect, which in turn places pressure on tuition revenues to support the financial aid budget.

While we’ve had fantastic philanthropic support from our donors, in order to really make sustainable investments in undergraduate financial aid, we need to increase the share of endowment support as a proportion of the undergraduate aid budget.

Can you touch on your office’s work on the Financial Wellness at Penn initiative that launched in 2019?

This [Financial Wellness at Penn initiative] is about helping students across the University build basic financial management and literacy skills, whether it’s how to set and manage a personal budget, manage credit and debt, or think about basic investment and retirement savings. My personal experience was that I did not have a lot of that knowledge until I was on my own after college, and I am very impressed with our team and their depth of experience in creating programs that provide these important financial skills.

I think the other great thing is, [our office] has engaged students in a peer-to-peer teaching model and that’s been incredibly effective. The energy and questions I see in those sessions really has to do with it being peers talking to peers. That’s a good model for us. We’re on track to have about 300 unique students come through this program in FY23, and many are repeat customers. We’re going to hold about 50 sessions in total this year.

A lot of graduate students take advantage of financial wellness resources as well, and three of our peer ambassadors are currently graduate students. We work with students from all backgrounds, and these resources aren’t just limited to students receiving financial aid.

Anything to add?

I’m excited by what’s going to emerge from President Magill’s strategic plan and to help identify and put the necessary financial resources behind it. One of our key responsibilities in the Division of Finance is to monitor the broader economic context and to steward our resources so that we can invest in new strategic priorities. Given the current economic uncertainties, I’m particularly focused on how we’re responding to the near-term pressures, such as inflation, so that we can invest in our long-term goals. The good news is that I believe we can continue to be bold and ambitious, and simultaneously do as much as possible now to operate efficiently, be prudent with our resources, and plan for the long run.