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Business Officer Magazine
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Vantage Point

Spotlight on an institution in one of the constituent groups: small institutions, community colleges, comprehensive/doctoral institutions, or research universities

By Jeffery M. Wolf

SMALL INSTITUTIONS
Holding the Line on Tuition Levels

At the University of Evansville (UE), Indiana, we continue to hear concerns from current and prospective students regarding the high cost of a college education. Skyrocketing costs remain a favorite target for commentators, politicians, and the public, as sticker prices—averaging 4-5 percent annual increases at many private colleges and universities in recent years—have outpaced inflation. While state budget cuts have forced many public institutions to raise tuition by double-digit levels, the availability of nontraditional options, such as for-profit schools and online education, has sparked debate about the value of the traditional on-campus experience.

Continuing anxiety about the future further underscores the need for families to reassess education affordability. That's why we have taken a bold step to initiate "The Big Freeze," to ensure UE's affordability while removing the uncertainty about future price increases. We anticipate that it may strengthen demand, improve retention, and help ensure the university's future.

A Grand Plan

We've committed to holding tuition at the current level for the entering class of 2013, also guaranteeing this tuition amount for their full four years of undergraduate study. We'll apply the same guarantee to all our current undergraduate students, keeping their original tuition price in place for the remainder of their four years at the university.

This decision—ultimately developed by a pricing working group of four administrators, four faculty, and four trustees—began as an extended senior leadership conversation on affordability concerns. As vice president for fiscal affairs, I served on this group, which was chaired by the president. Much of my work included the development of several multiyear predictive models assessing the likely impact of the freeze on enrollment and net revenue.

Central to the assessment was the assumption that it would become increasingly difficult to meet net revenue goals using the "high sticker price, high discount rate" strategy commonly used by most private institutions, including UE. We were convinced that the vicious cycle of meeting enrollment goals by substantially increasing financial aid would produce incrementally less net revenue each year.

We also concluded that it was important to act before these concerns reached a crisis point. And, while UE's overall enrollment remains strong, reaching a decade-high level in academic year 2010–11, the financial pressure of rising net prices in a still-weak economy continues to make it more difficult to meet enrollment targets.

We saw a tuition freeze and lock-in as a tool to ensure that we can meet our enrollment and revenue goals. Our careful examination of the expense side of the budget to ensure more optimal alignment of mission and resource allocations should also generate at least modest expense reductions.


Clifford Circle, with Olmsted Hall, the University of Evansville's main administration building, in the background
Photo - The University of Evansville

Career Questions and Commitments

To address anxieties about what will happen after students graduate, we reevaluated our Office of Career Services, which typically works with students who are nearing graduation. We redesigned the office, renamed it the Center for Career Development, and encouraged students to use its three programs at various points during their relationship with UE.

  • Career Advantage Program. Promoted during the recruitment process, this program involves staff meeting individually with prospective students to discuss the ways college choices and fields of study can lead to various career paths. We expect the initiative to reach more than one third of our newly enrolled students.
  • Advanced Career Education (ACE). For current students, this program offers (and certifies) a wide range of activities that help shape skills necessary for competing in the job market: everything from resume preparation and interviewing essentials to effective writing, speaking, and working in teams. We anticipate a minimum of 200 ACE participants by May 2013. 
  • UE Connect. We encourage new graduates to become part of a network of alumni and more than 6,000 employer contacts that helps with job searches and transitions to new communities and careers. Seniors are matched with mentors, who are alumni volunteers. In place for about 12 months, the program already includes 400 alumni and 40 percent of the graduating class of 2012.

Initial indications suggest we're on the right track to produce substantial savings for families and more career success for graduates. Our constituents have offered resounding endorsements of the Big Freeze and the expansion of the Center for Career Development, suggesting that affordability and outcomes are indeed major issues for higher education today.

Learn more about the Big Freeze at www.evansville.edu/bigfreeze.  

SUBMITTED BY Jeffery M. Wolf, vice president for fiscal affairs and administration, University of Evansville, Indiana