A Bold Look at National Trends
Alicia is a rising junior at Benedict College, who upon realizing that her parents could no longer afford her tuition, had just began giving up hope and looking at other options for her future. Imagine the sheer delight on Alicia’s face as she receives a letter containing her financial aid package for the academic year, and discovers her tuition has been discounted by $6,000.
This burst of satisfaction, excitement, and relief affecting Alicia and other students like her, results from Benedict College administration’s bold decision to lower tuition by $6,000 for returning students and create a substantially more affordable option for new incoming students. Since its inception in 1870 by founder Mrs. Bathsheba Benedict, Benedict College has evidenced sincere devotion to her goal to educate and produce citizens like Alicia who would be “powers for good in society.” Nearly 150 years later, with such a bold approach in the face of several sociopolitical challenges, leadership at Benedict continues to demonstrate a renewed commitment to providing access for students to become powers for good in society, as defined by Founder Benedict.
Eligibility to receive a federal Pell grant has historically served as an indicator of a student’s financial need. According to IPEDS data, the range of Pell grant recipients among historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the 2011–2012 academic year was 100 percent at Concordia College Alabama and 41 percent at Hampton University. The collective average of Pell grant recipients across all HBCUs was 77 percent — indicating that the majority of students at most HBCUs are considered members of high-need populations. Ninety percent of Benedict College students are Pell eligible, which suggests that the majority of Benedict students are also considered of low socioeconomic status, above and beyond the average for Pell-eligible students at all HBCUs.
As HBCUs commonly serve large populations of socioeconomically challenged students who are dependent upon affordable pricing and the availability of financial aid from initial enrollment and retention through to graduation — what is preventing HBCUs from also making the decision to lower tuition? With student gaps of between $6,000 and $8,000, and access to the ability to provide a discount of around 32 percent, rather than asking what prompted our decision to do so, the better question is why would we not lower tuition – and when will HBCUs across the country follow suit?
Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis, president and CEO of Benedict College, recently analyzed the cost of tuition at colleges and universities across the country. She found the cost of tuition to be skyrocketing at an alarming rate and tuition discount rates rising at an all-time high. Her examination of the failure to meet enrollment targets at America’s colleges and universities also revealed concerning results. When looking at IPEDS data, more than two-thirds of private colleges failed to meet their enrollment or net tuition revenue targets for 2016. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in a 2017 article titled “The Future of College Enrollment” that U.S. colleges are expected to see a steady decline in their enrollment, posing yet another threat to their continued existence and access for many of their students. From 2012 to 2016, 68 percent of HBCUs experienced a decline in enrollment. During this same time period, Benedict College experienced a 21.8 percent decrease in enrollment. Taking together each of these factors, when asked why we lowered our cost of attendance, again, the better question should be, “Why not?”
A Bold Look at Our Tuition-Discounting Model
The average first-time, full-time tuition discount rate edged even closer to 50 percent from 2016 to 2017 as net tuition revenue and enrollment continued to struggle, according to the 2016 Tuition Discounting Study from the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Upon her arrival, President Artis noticed that Benedict College’s tuition was constantly rising, as was the tuition discount rate, yet tuition net revenue lagged behind, and enrollment was feeble.
“The fact is, college has never been more necessary, but it’s also never been more expensive,” said former president Barack Obama in his Syracuse speech on college affordability in August 2013. According to the College Board, average tuition and fees have increased from $24,070 for the 2003–2004 school year to $30,090 in 2013–2014, an increase of more than $6,000 in a span of 10 years. Despite this, after accounting for financial aid average net tuition and fees actually decreased from $13,600 per year to an estimated $12,460 — a reduction of $1,140 over 10 years (in 2013 dollars).
The cost of college education has risen three times faster than the inflation rate since 1978. When adjusting for inflation, expressing the cost in terms of constant dollars and accounting for the reduction of overall costs caused by financial aid, average tuition and fees have remained effectively unchanged. When we, at Benedict College, looked at our budget in previous years and considered inflation, we actually saw real decreases in our net tuition revenue. As most private colleges like Benedict receive the majority of their operating dollars from tuition and fee payments from the families of their enrolled students, when net tuition revenue declines, it serves as an important indicator that the university is experiencing some serious financial stress. This, alongside our findings indicating that a rise in discount rates was insufficient for bringing in additional undergraduates, served as a desperate call-to-action for an in-depth examination of our use of our tuition-discount model.
A Bold Execution for Strategic Transformation (#TheBESTofBC)
It is no longer acceptable to establish goals based solely on expected expenditures and enrollment revenue or a standard percentage per year, and it is imperative to be realistic about the current state of finances in considering the institution’s future. For transformation to take place, we must consider strategically setting tuition, fees, and room and board rates in a strategic way that will result in our desired outcomes. We now must avoid pricing ourselves out of the market and, instead, ensure our pricing was affordable and competitive with that of our peer and regional institutions. Under the leadership of Dr. Artis, Benedict College decided to take the bold step of positioning ourselves as a reasonably priced option for the students we are committed to serving and hope to recruit and retain. In boldly responding to our returning students, we acknowledged the economic challenge faced by their families with the rising cost of tuition, taking on the responsibility of making a Benedict College education both accessible and affordable.
Benedict College echoes loudly Nelson Mandela’s famously quoted statement, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Through our bold action to decrease tuition costs, we reiterate our belief that the cost of that powerful weapon should not be a deterrent to accessing it and exhibit our dedication to ensuring that a Benedict College education remains an accessible and available option to all.
Dr. Emmanuel Lalande is the Vice President for Enrollment Management at Benedict College.