Colleges pursue affordability through reduced tuition

Increasing college affordability – in perception and reality.
That was the goal of a tuition reduction by all-women’s College of Saint Mary (CSM) last school year – a move that is yielding benefits for students and the Omaha school.
“It’s one of the ways we live out the mission of the Sisters of Mercy (founders of the college) by helping women gain access to higher education,” said Sarah Kottich, executive vice president of operations and planning.
Last fall, the Omaha college reduced full-time undergraduate tuition from $29,954 to $19,950. This year, tuition edged up slightly to $20,350. Tuition for the school’s 12 graduate programs varies by discipline.
The average undergraduate cost to attend the school also dropped from $15,585 for the 2016-2017 academic year to $12,925 for 2017-2018, she said.
College of Saint Mary was not alone. Another private Catholic school – Avila University in Kansas City, Mo. – implemented a similar tuition reduction that began in January, said Josh Parisse, director of undergraduate admissions.
Undergraduate tuition, which dropped from $28,820 to $19,900, now also includes all books and fees, which would otherwise average about $1,800, he said.
Tuition for evening accelerated degree programs and graduate programs remained unchanged, Parisse said.
Research shows that about 60 percent of families with college-bound children eliminate possible schools before they investigate financial aid options, simply because of the stated tuition cost, CSM’s Kottich said. Reduced tuition was a move to overcome such reactions.
It was a deciding factor for CSM sophomore Elaundra Nichols of Omaha. “When I saw the lower price, I knew I could afford to come here,” she said.
Originally planning to attend the University of Kansas but concerned about the out-of-state tuition cost (about $24,000), her thoughts turned to CSM, where she had attended a week-long program for minority students during high school that allowed her to experience college life and learn about the school.
“It opened my eyes to College of Saint Mary, which is a hidden jewel,” Nichols said. “And the tuition reduction has allowed me to not have to worry so much about coming up with the money to pay for tuition.”
She received several academic, corporate and private scholarships, lowering her tuition cost for freshman year to about $6,000. Nichols also obtained student loans.
Although she has not received as many scholarships this year, she now works for the college as a student ambassador and serves as a resident advisor in the dormitory, which gives her free room and board.
The reduced tuition program has helped College of Saint Mary make significant enrollment gains.
Reduced tuition is helping attract high-financial-need students – those who qualify for Pell grants or undocumented students who are ineligible for aid – a priority population for the college, given its mission, Kottich said. 
That segment increased by 26 percent, from 85 students for 2016-2017 to 107 for 2017-2018. “That kind of growth in one year is pretty telling,” she said. “We’re creating an awareness.”
The program also is helping boost overall enrollment, Kottich said. While trending upward in recent years, total CSM student population increased from 1,043 to 1,140 the first year of reduced tuition – a 9.3 percent jump. This year, enrollment is 1,149.
Like CSM, Avila also is hoping to draw more high-financial-need students through its tuition reduction.
Aligned with the mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (the school’s founders) to “serve the dear neighbor,” one of Avila’s goals is to make a college education affordable for underprivileged and first-generation students, Parisse said. “That’s who we are.”
Although Avila has not yet seen a significant impact on total enrollment, the school did see an additional 20 students transfer to the school in the spring, he said.
College of Saint Mary has offset lost revenue by appealing to donors based on the school’s mission and goal of increasing affordability and reducing student borrowing, Kottich said. Donor contributions to scholarships increased from $1.1 million to $2.6 million, she said. “We anticipate that strong donor support to continue.”
The school also plans to ensure long-term undergraduate affordability by expanding graduate programs in high demand fields such as physical therapy, occupational therapy and physician assistant studies, Kottich said.
Avila is offsetting lost revenue by adjusting its discounts and scholarship model, Parisse said. The school offers need-based grants on a sliding scale.
Financial aid packages at CSM also operate on a sliding scale, allowing the college to give larger awards to higher-need students, Kottich said. 
“We’re also trying to address the financial needs of students on multiple levels,” she said. For example, CSM eliminated additional fees several years ago, and accelerated, combination undergraduate and graduate programs help reduce the total cost of a college education.
Avila University also is working to ensure affordability through the “Avila Promise,” Parisse said, which includes a guarantee that students can graduate in four years and that year-to-year tuition increases will be held at 3 percent.
Avila’s commitment also includes a guarantee of internship or research experience and availability of a $1,000 travel award for students seeking international educational experiences.
Although more expensive than some public colleges and universities, schools such as College of Saint Mary and Avila University offer a Catholic difference.
“First and foremost, Catholic social teaching informs a lot of what we do at College of Saint Mary,” Kottich said. 
Students are required to take six credit hours of theology and/or philosophy classes, and many classes and college events also offer service learning opportunities.
Providing numerous service opportunities also is a focus at Avila, Parisse said.
For example, incoming freshmen take part in the “Community Plunge” at a food bank, where they pack food and household products for distribution to more than 620 nonprofit social service agencies in 26 Missouri and Kansas counties.
In addition to the financial benefits, CSM sophomore Nichols said she appreciates the atmosphere at the college, a smaller school where it’s easy to get to know faculty and other students.
“It’s a very welcoming environment where you can flourish and find your passion,” she said.
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