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St. John’s College says its audacious tuition cut is paying off

St. John’s College officials say that securing the school’s future depends not on scaling up tuition but on ensuring a strong philanthropic pipeline. (AP File Photo)

Faced with budget shortfalls, most institutions of higher learning tend to focus on raising tuition.

St. John’s College, however, decided in 2018 to go in an entirely different direction, slashing tuition rates and making up the difference through a campaign to raise $300 million by June 30, 2023.

The gamble has paid off, official say, with rising applications, a more diverse student body and a successful fundraising campaign about to wind up.

“College is expensive and finances almost always play a role in where students are choosing to enroll,” said Benjamin Baum, vice president of enrollment. “It has always been a big topic of conversation as we work with applicants, and when we reset tuition it really changed the narrative for us in many ways.”

“We didn’t just announce a tuition reset and then step back,” Baum added. “We went into this knowing we needed to really trumpet what we were doing.”

St. John’s has always enjoyed a unique place in the nation’s higher education environment. It’s the country’s third-oldest college, and at a time when many institutions try to ride whatever academic wave seems to be producing jobs for graduates, St. John’s clings to a curriculum based on the Western Classics.

The announcement of a tuition cut four years ago came as many others were hiking their rates.

The cut was just over 30%, with the yearly tab going from $52,000 to $35,000. The private liberal arts college has campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Tuition for the 2022-23 school year is just over $36,000.

Since the tuition cut was announced, the school has seen its applicant pool increase.

“One place we see growth is amongst students who fit right in an income band range where our former tuition of over $50,000 felt like an insurmountable hurdle,” Baum said. “The new tuition of about $35,000 — that was a big bill to encounter but one that might be more manageable.”

The number of students who come from low-income families and qualify for federal Pell grants also rose.

“For them, the tuition reset on its own isn’t what made St. John’s any more affordable,” Baum said. “It was the tuition reset combined with the generous financial aid we have been offering, but I think the message about affordability … really resonated with students for whom the only way St. John’s would have been possible was through really generous financial aid.”

Baum said admissions rose 25% from 2017, the year before the tuition cut was announced, to the end of the 2021 applicant cycle. While St. John’s is still amid its current application cycle, Baum said the school “was tracking ahead” of where it was at this time last year.

“I expect this year’s applicant pool will be a record-size applicant pool,” he said.

St. John’s 2021-2022 freshman class was one of the largest ever. The Annapolis campus had 153 freshmen, the most since 2008, while the Santa Fe campus welcomed 135, the biggest number since 2003.

Kelly Brown, vice president for advancement, said St. John’s decided to reduce tuition because of a “real understanding that the way colleges were presenting tuition numbers was deterring the middle class.”

“Those of great wealth don’t look at the tuition price as the first point of reference and those with great need understand that there are funds available, but in the middle class I think there is a sense that the sticker price is what you pay,” Brown said. “In slashing (tuition), we made our front window, as it were, to be more appealing to the middle class.”

To make up the shortfall, St. John’s embarked on its Freeing Minds campaign to raise $300 million.

“In linking the tuition reduction with the launch of the Freeing Minds campaign, we permanently sent a message that every student is partially funded by philanthropy and that our community had to be part of the solution,” Brown said.

With 14 months left before the deadline, the campaign has raised $292.5 million of its $300 million goal.

“It was amazing the response that has occurred in the last four years,” Brown said. “When we launched, we experienced probably our biggest increase in the annual fund that year from the general population.”

St. John’s officials studied tuition resets before they put theirs into place, Baum said.

“We saw examples of ones that worked and we saw examples of ones that really didn’t work, and one of the major factors in what seemed to work was college-wide collaboration between offices,” he said.

St. John’s admissions, development, marketing and communications departments all worked together to make the campaign successful.

Baum said there is no one-size-fits-all solution to make college more affordable.

“The reason we were successful was because we are unique,” Baum said. “We had a message that resonated. We worked across different departments. We were going out into the world not talking exclusively about our cost but combining a conversation about our cost with the unique offering of our curriculum. That really worked for us, but another college is going to have to package those things together in really different ways.”

St. John’s understands that securing its future depends not on scaling up tuition but on ensuring a strong philanthropic pipeline, Brown said.

“I think higher education needs to understand that (over) the next 50 to 100 years, tuition is not going to be able to rise at the same rate it has over the last 50, and so, therefore, other sources of revenue, especially philanthropy, need to be increased,” she said.