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Md.’s St. John’s College abandons ‘prestige’ tuition pricing

St. John's College President Mark Roosevelt talks about trends in student tuition and spending by colleges in Santa Fe, N.M. The college with campuses in Santa Fe and Annapolis, Md., is reducing its annual tuition price, adding grants for New Mexico residents and plans to rely more on philanthropy to defer academic costs to students. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

St. John’s College President Mark Roosevelt talks about trends in student tuition and spending. The college, with campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe, is reducing its annual tuition price. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

St. John’s College, the private liberal arts school with campuses in Annapolis and New Mexico, announced Wednesday a $17,000 reduction in its annual tuition, acknowledging that steady price increases in pursuit of prestige had inadvertently driven away many qualified students from families of moderate or modest economic means.

Tuition for the coming academic year will drop to $35,000 at St. John’s, which serves about 800 students in Santa Fe and Annapolis with a sacrosanct dedication to exploring the formative texts of Western civilization — from Euclid to Jane Austen — in small classroom settings. The Santa Fe campus also offers graduate studies in the Eastern classics.

College President Mark Roosevelt described the price decrease as an honest recognition that students mostly do not pay the full price for tuition, and said the school was determined to become more affordable and accessible through need-based aid and philanthropic efforts.

“We’re trying to reduce the number of people who deem us unaffordable from sticker price alone,” said Roosevelt, a former Massachusetts state legislator and superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools who led the re-opening of Antioch College in 2011.

He said that St. John’s had made a “mistake” by participating in a trend among private U.S. colleges of adopting tuition increases over the past 20 years that vastly outpaced inflation.

“We’re opting out of prestige pricing, we’re setting our tuition at a lower point,” he said. “We’re hoping it opens up more channels of communication to people to find out what we really cost.”

The college also will offer $10,000 grants to New Mexico residents who attend starting in the fall of 2019 — effectively lowering their maximum tuition to $25,000. Roosevelt said that it is “still a lot of money, but we hope it brings people into the conversation” about attending.

The college estimates annual academic spending on each student at about $60,000 year, a reflection of the school’s commitment to seminar-style classes, with a student-to-faculty ration of seven-to-one and no adjunct professors to reduce expenses. On average, students pay about $18,000 a year, Roosevelt noted.

To bridge that gap and lower tuition, the college hopes to raise $300 million and double its endowment by 2023. On Wednesday, it announced a $50 million pledge from wine magnate Warren Winiarski and wife, Barbara, through a family foundation to match new donations to St. John’s. The two are alumni of the college.

Roosevelt said the new fundraising campaign is directed primarily at educational expenses and will not pay for any new stadiums, buildings or amenities — though it may pay some campus maintenance expenses.

“Neither campus has a swimming pool,” he said. “Our education is expensive to deliver. Why? Because it’s around a table like this with 15 chairs and two tutors. It’s an expensive model.”

Nominal annual tuition and fees at the Santa Fe campus exceeded $54,000 for the current school year. Average student debt for the graduating class in 2018 was $28,219 at the Annapolis campus and $27,686 for Santa Fe.

“We believe we did participate in something that was a mistake, which was this tremendous escalation in the sticker price, and we regret it,” Roosevelt said.

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