I'm a Methodist, Methodist 'tis my belief
I'm a Methodist till die
Till old grim death comes a knockin' at the door
I'm a Methodist till I die.
sung by Red Foley and others
Birmingham-Southern College, a Methodist school in Alabama, is slashing its tuition price by half. Current tuition: $35,840. Next year's tuition: $17,650.
Linda Flaherty-Goldsmith, BSC's president, put a positive spin on this development. "The marketplace spoke, and we listened," Flaherty-Goldsmith said in a prepared statement. "Students and families are telling colleges all across the United States--and they're telling us--that encountering a high published price is a real barrier to a high-quality education. We want to make sure that the best and brightest students have access to the kind of personalized, challenging, hands-on educational experience that BSC provides."
Forgive me for being cynical, but that statement sounds like bullshit from the public relations department. For one thing, BSC isn't really cutting its net tuition rate. Ninety percent of BSC students were already paying less than the sticker price. In fact, college officials admitted that next year's net tuition price will be about what students are paying this year.
Basically, BSC has been doing what almost all small private colleges have been doing--jacking up the posted tuition rate and then cutting the real cost in half by granting scholarships and grants.
As Flaherty-Goldsmith admitted, this strategy isn't working. Families were scared off by BSC's sticker price, a price that only about 10 percent of BSC students were actually paying.
I wish BSC well, but I don't think slashing published tuition rates will bump up enrollment. Small colleges across the United States have tried all sorts of gimmicks to attract more students, but a third of all private institutions with enrollments under 3,000 ran deficits last year.
Colleges have tried advertising campaigns, "signature" academic experiences, study abroad opportunities, and online instruction to lure students through the door, but many are losing the battle to remain solvent.
Let's face facts. How many students are willing to pay $35,000 a year or even $17,000 a year to get a liberal arts degree from an undistinguished small college in Birmingham, Alabama?Apparently not very many.
There was a time when a college's religious affiliation was a draw for some American families. Back in the 1950s, some Methodists sent their children to Methodist schools, and Catholics sent their sons and daughters to Catholic colleges.
But that time is long past. It is getting harder and harder to articulate what it means to be a Methodist college as opposed to a Catholic college or even a publicly funded institution.
And it is getting more and more difficult to explain the value of a liberal arts education to a fragmented culture in which all values are relative and Eurocentric values are particularly suspect.
As I say, I wish BSC well. But small liberal arts colleges are becoming increasingly irrelevant, and the high tuition that most of them charge has accelerated their decline.
In my mind, it is too late to ratchet back tuition rates. The small colleges' former clients are drifting toward community colleges, trade schools, and regional public universities. Their customers have departed, and they are not coming back.
And I don't feel sorry for the small colleges that are dying. I feel sorry for the schmucks who took out student loans to pay BSC's sticker price.
|BSC president Linda Flaherty-Goldsmith|
Associated Press. Birmingham-Southern cutting tuition, fees next fall. Seattle Times, September 13, 2017.
Rick Seltzer. Birmingham-Southern Cuts Tuition in Half. Inside Higher Ed, September 13, 2017.