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Cushioning the Blow

How college officials have communicated the need for tuition increases
University Business, Feb 2012

There are two things Muhlenberg College (Pa.) president Randy Helm makes sure to do when he writes his annual tuition letter to parents, and both are in the first paragraph. First, he thanks parents for sending their children to the college; second, he details the following year’s tuition and fees and notes the percentage increase over the current year.

“This is a big investment for every family,” Helm says in a phone interview. “Even for those who are receiving significant financial aid. And it’s their kids. What is more important to their life than their kids? ... You need to take that seriously when you’re communicating with them. You need to understand how important this is to them, but at the same time, get to the point.”

Helm’s strategies of empathy and directness have a corollary of note: Muhlenberg’s parent giving rate, 60-plus percent, is among the highest in the nation. “If you get caught up in dollars and cents, you go off message,” he says. “The message is that you have their sons and daughters. It’s a privilege to have them on campus.”

Tuition increases are commonplace. In some cases, the hikes are so large they draw attention not only from students and parents but also from the media, government officials, and other external stakeholders. Regardless of whose eyebrows are raised, according to those who have successfully handled thorny tuition issues, clear language, direct communication, and presidential involvement are key.

On the Defensive

In 2007, before financial markets tanked worldwide, before the debt crisis, before rampant budget cutting, before double-digit unemployment, a 15-percent tuition increase was bound to garner attention. It was no surprise, then, that when Grinnell College (Iowa) bumped up its tuition by that percentage to bring the school more in line with its peer institutions, students griped and Inside Higher Ed diplomatically said the decision illustrated “the tricky economics and campus politics of tuition policy.”

Grinnell officials declined to comment for this story, but its then-president says that transparent and comprehensive communication helped the college to quell criticism. Over the years, notes Russell Osgood, Grinnell’s endowment had been contributing an ever-increasing percentage to meeting each student’s “full, demonstrated need,” while the percentage supported by tuition had drifted downward. At the same time, costs had risen sharply. The only way for the college to maintain key facets of its operational identity—such as need-blind aid and small student-faculty ratios—was to raise tuition by a higher amount than usual.
“If you look at all of our peers, you’ll see all of them have done that at some point,” says Osgood, now a professor emeritus of political science at Grinnell, as well as a visiting professor in the School of Law at Washington University in St. Louis. “State colleges do that regularly.”

But, he adds, “to explain that to parents is complex. We said we’d talk about it in terms of the financial profile of the place. It’s getting more and more expensive, and we have more and more needy students. Then we said that if you look at our peers with similarly expensive programs, they’re all charging five, six, seven thousand dollars more. ... Grinnell runs a very expensive program, and you have to pay your bills, or you have to change the program.” Although current students weren’t affected by the tuition increase, Grinnell officials nonetheless mentioned it in a letter to their parents. They also announced the increase in a press release and, Osgood says, “talked to anyone that would listen to us.”

‘We had very little pushback because we had had very early and open discussions about [the tuition increase].’ —Pam Lepley, Virginia Commonwealth University

According to Osgood, the first year the increase was effective, Grinnell received record numbers of applications and “enrolled our strongest class ever.” Perhaps most importantly, “we never heard a single complain from a parent,” he adds. “We rolled the higher tuition through the classes as they entered. I’d recommend that to anyone if they’re thinking of a larger than normal increase.”

Economic Realities

In 2010, Virginia Commonwealth University hiked tuition for in-state residents by 24 percent to make up for plunging state support. The fallout reached the statehouse, where Governor Bob McDonnell, calling rising tuition rates “unacceptable,” yanked $17 million of state funding, an amount equal to half of VCU’s tuition increase, as a punitive measure.

Students and parents, though, weren’t nearly as upset as their governor was, according to Pam Lepley, VCU’s executive director of university relations. “We had very little pushback,” she says, “because we had had very early and open discussions about it.”

The messages VCU delivered emphasized that despite its status as a major research institution, the university was among the least expensive in Virginia. Among the consequences of that were fewer faculty, larger class sizes, fewer course sections, and fewer resources to help students graduate on time. The tuition increase was positioned as a way to remedy these shortcomings. And even with the 24 percent increase, the school’s new tuition put it in “the middle of the pack” in the state, with smaller liberal arts schools charging more to attend, according to Lepley.

She characterizes the university’s outreach to its stakeholders as “grass-roots.” Tactics included meeting with students, faculty, and staff, enlisting alumni, and communicating with important external constituencies, such as community leaders, the media, and government officials. Throughout the process, Lepley notes, VCU was careful to keep its messaging tactful.

“We fully understood the position the state was in,” she says. “It’s a terrible, terrible economy. The state has unbelievable demands, and education is one of the few discretionary items they have that they can cut back on. This wasn’t a case of positioning the state as evil. This was a case of ‘times are tough and this is how we have to deal with it.’ ”

Virginia’s General Assembly eventually restored the $17 million McDonnell had withheld, and Lepley says the controversy served as “a blessing in disguise.”
“It certainly opened up the dialogue with the state, so that was helpful,” she says. “And we can see now that the McDonnell administration really puts higher ed on the front burner.”

Hot Button Coolers

With access to higher education a topic of increasing interest to legislators, tuition became something of a hot-button public policy issue over the last several years. In response, the U.S. Department of Education launched the College Affordability and Transparency Center, a website that aggregates cost data from the country’s colleges and universities, to give parents, prospective students, and others easy access to tuition information.

Among the options for users of the site are listings of schools with the highest percentage tuition increases. A 39 percent increase over a recent three-year period landed Jamestown College (N.D.) on the list of private, nonprofit, four-year institutions with the largest increases.

According to Polly Peterson, Jamestown’s vice president for institutional advancement, a one-year tuition adjustment was to blame for the school’s placement on the DoE’s list. Outreach to parents and students emphasized that the increase would be applied to incoming students only and that the funding would be used to upgrade the college’s academic programs.

Jamestown officials conducted student focus groups and worked with the student senate, which “helped advocate for the increase,” notes Peterson. The college told its stakeholders it was already so affordable that the increase—while remarkable in terms of percentage—was not nearly as impactful when it came to actual dollars. “We’re substantially less than the average price of private colleges,” she says. “We didn’t see a lot of pushback because we’re very affordable and offer a terrific value.”

Helping to deliver that message was the school’s president, Robert S. Badal, who was in front of students and alumni to explain why Jamestown was making the moves it was, Peterson says. “I don’t think there’s anything we wish we had done differently. From a communications perspective, we did all the things we needed to do to communicate the message in such a way that people were comfortable with the decision we made.”

Indeed, while tuition communication can come from the board, from enrollment management, or from public relations, many say presidential involvement and visibility are crucial.

“The decisions that lead to the tuition proposal come through the president, and the president needs to take responsibility,” Muhlenberg’s Helm says.
Osgood wishes he had been more visible in explaining the need to raise tuition as much as his college did during his tenure as president.

“As the economy and the markets went to hell in the year after our increase, I did think and I still think college presidents need to be out there talking more publicly about the economic aspects of how they run their programs,” he says.

Alyssa McCloud, vice president of enrollment management at Seton Hall University (N.J.), has become a national expert on how institutions set tuition and how they should communicate that news. She notes that, especially for incoming freshmen, the entire process is complicated by the fact that tuition rates and financial aid packages often are announced late in the spring, leaving prospective students with little time to compare schools and offers.

At the point that school officials are making that tuition decision, they usually have a very defined pool of admitted students, McCloud says. “It’s most important that that word be communicated to the students already committed to the institution, because they’re the ones with the urgency of making the decision, and to returning students. Both are audiences we have the ability to directly communicate with.”

Like many others, McCloud advocates for simplicity and directness. “Be as clear and upfront as possible,” she advises. “Messages should, in the first sentence or two, tell students what the issue is. Often people write messages and maybe the main message is delivered in the third or fourth paragraph, and by the time you get there you’ve lost them.”

A corollary to the simplicity of the message, say others, is its frequency. “When you communicate early and often and in an understandable way,” VCU’s Lepley says, “people can understand the situation and put it in the context of where it is.”
“More communication, better quality communication about financial issues, particularly because of the environment we’re in, is absolutely needed,” Osgood adds.

To that end, Helm’s letter includes a table listing tuition and fees at schools with which Muhlenberg competes; most of them, he says, are more expensive than his institution and enjoy larger endowments. And so Helm takes care to write of how efficiently Muhlenberg educates its students, offering high quality despite lesser resources.

“You know it costs money, and so do we, but we can do it as efficiently as possible without affecting quality,” he says. “That’s generally key to my message every year. I’ll have different specifics every year because we’ll have achieved different efficiencies. ... If you are convinced that your institution is providing an extraordinary educational experience, and that you’re doing it efficiently, you have nothing to apologize for.”

“Sometimes it’s just basic 101 communications,” McCloud says. “It’s very important to tell people the thing they need to know immediately, because it’s unlikely people will read the whole thing. We try to do that as much as we can.”

Helm could not agree more, though he adds that the conclusion is just as important as the beginning.

“One of the things I learned as a fundraiser is that they read the first sentence, and they read the last sentence,” he says. “If they’re really being generous with their time, they’ll read everything in between, but you can’t count on it. … It’s important to get straight to the point.”

The final line in Helm’s tuition letter last year?

“Please accept my deepest thanks.”

Thomas W. Durso is the associate vice president for college relations and marketing at Albright College (Pa.)