Addressing College Affordability Head-on

By October 20, 2017 March 7th, 2019 Trusteeship Article

How long can we continue these tuition increases?” a long-serving and respected trustee asked during one of my first board meetings at Utica College. It was spring of 2005, I was a new trustee, and I wasn’t sure what I was doing on the board or how I could help. That one simply phrased but important question gave me something to focus on. Pricing, at least, was one thing I thought I understood.

Ten years later, in the fall of 2015, Utica College announced the reduction of tuition and fees by 42 percent to just under $20,000, as well as a reduction in the average cost of room and board by 13 percent, effective the following year. The total published price before financial aid would be $30,430 for fall of 2016.

That fall, we welcomed our biggest freshman class ever. We also saw an improvement in retention rates, a trend we expect to continue.

My most rewarding experience as a trustee was in a meeting shortly before our press conference announcing the tuition reset. Our president asked several student leaders to come to his office to discuss the announcement. Upon hearing the news, one student, a senior, began crying. Why? Coming from a single-parent family, she believed her family could now afford a Utica College education for her younger brother.

I, along with the others, welled up with tears. And at that point, I knew we’d be successful because we elected to do the right thing.

As early as spring of 2005, my research into the high-sticker/ high-discount higher education pricing model caused me to arrive at one conclusion: the model was bizarre. It seemed to me that a college like ours couldn’t win or even compete in the perilous amenities race necessary to justify the high price in the first place.

As an institution founded in service to the families of the Mohawk Valley and its World War II veterans, affordability and access have always been important to Utica College. We have had a long tradition of serving first-generation and non-traditional students. Affordability has always been a topic of importance during our board meetings. Many of our trustees were the first in their families to attend college.

Over the next few years, affordability continued to gain importance. We learned that we were missing one crucial thing in the high sticker model: full-pay students. Our president at the time would hold up nine fingers when asked what the full-pay rate was. And that didn’t stand for 9 percent. It was literally nine students. We were living our mission, which contradicted the rules for high sticker pricing.

By 2014, I was chair-elect of the board of trustees. The stories of graduates struggling under enormous debt loads were mounting. We were reading about how college was, perhaps, no longer “worth it.”

Our board saw that as a challenge. We were poised to act—we’d had more than 10 years of growth in enrollment and the introduction of new market-driven programs every year. In addition, alternative revenue streams were growing.

A small group of board members, administrators, and expert advisors spent the next year researching and modeling tuition resets. Our college leadership visited other colleges that had succeeded and failed in tuition resets. These individuals became experts on how to plan, execute, and communicate tuition resets. We concluded the process with a tight and coherent approach.

By the time I became chair in June 2015, our board was confident about the in-depth work and unanimously approved the tuition reset plan. We would be taking back the initiative in the discussion about the value of a college education by addressing the issue of price head-on.

A reset isn’t right for every college. But I believe that we should all think about how we price to meet the needs of our students and their families. And we should always listen for that next question that starts out “How long…”