Could St. John’s offer a model for making college more affordable?

St. John’s College took a risk and drew skepticism when it announced last year that it would cut tuition from $52,000 to $35,000, but college officials now say the philanthropy-centered financial model shows promise—and has attracted interest from other colleges. 

A different kind of tuition reset

St. John’s, a small liberal arts college with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, implemented its change amid a wave of tuition resets at other small, private colleges. Those institutions had drawn criticism for using tuition cuts as marketing tools to attract students and ultimately bring in more tuition money—without necessarily changing the actual net amount paid by students after factoring in grants and scholarships. However, St. John’s said its model was different: the college would make up for lost revenue through a $300 million fundraising campaign, so students would “actually see a meaningful reduction in what they pay,” according to Inside Higher Ed

“We believe the days when students and families could pay exorbitant tuition prices are gone…and we are placing philanthropy at the center of our financial model rather than student-derived revenue to ensure we remain strong financially as a college,” said Mark Roosevelt, college-wide president of St. John’s College and president of the Santa Fe campus. 

‘It was not something we had to sell’

The fundraising effort, called Freeing Minds: A Campaign for St. John’s College, has already raised $205 million in commitments toward the goal, with gifts of less than $5,000 accounting for more than $1 million of that amount, according to Inside Higher Ed. “It just had an immediate resonance with the concerns that were already in the community,” said Phelosha Collaros, the college’s vice president of development and alumni relations. “It was not something we had to sell; it was something we had to invite people to help us with it.” Ultimately, St. John’s will use $200 million of the funds to grow its endowment, $50 million for campus improvements, and $50 million for operating finances. 

Attracting applications and sparking interest across higher ed 

This fall, St. John’s received applications from 1,414 students, a new record for the college. Ben Baum, vice president of enrollment at St. John’s, attributed the uptick to the new financial model, saying that “we have some information, mostly anecdotal, about students who were drawn to enroll because of the lowered tuition.” University officials, he said, are “looking to see how it sustains itself over time and if there are patterns to follow.” 

Other schools are wondering if St. John’s model is replicable and have reached out to the college. “People are very curious and concerned at a time of under-enrollment,” Baum said.  “St. John’s appears to have kept their financial aid strong and shifted to endowment backing with the objective of achieving enrollment goals and socioeconomic diversity,” said Bill Hall, founder and president of Applied Policy Research Inc., an enrollment and pricing advising firm. “I think this is a game changer.”

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