SC Colleges Are Hiking Tuition. Benedict is Cutting Theirs 26%

Friday, April 13th, 2018

When Roslyn Artis took over as president of Benedict College in 2017, it was "broke."

Enrollment was down and showed no signs of increasing. Students were choosing public schools like the University of South Carolina over private colleges like Benedict, which had become more expensive. Juniors and seniors were dropping out of the Columbia college because they couldn't afford tuition. For those who graduated, many couldn't afford to pay their loan debt, Artis said.

For Benedict's students, three-quarters of whom are first-generation college students, the problem was price, Artis said.

That's why Benedict College is cutting tuition 26 percent. The once-open enrollment college is funding the tuition cut, which will reduce revenue by $16.1 million per year, by reducing costs, capping enrollment and setting an academic requirement for attendance. Benedict is far from the first college to cut tuition costs, but as enrollment growth slows at all universities, it's a model more colleges and universities might have to adopt to keep their doors open.

"Our students were simply not able to pay," said Artis, who will be officially inaugurated as Benedict's 14th president on Friday. "Maybe (we) had outgrown ourselves when it comes to price."

Currently, students at the 148-year-old college should expect to pay $30,830 per year for tuition and books, according to the college's website. After the cut goes into effect in fall 2018, that cost will be $22,800.

Colleges and universities typically cut costs to increase enrollment, but Benedict's strategy is different. Besides cutting cost, the college is limiting enrollment to 2,100 students. When Artis proposed the tuition cut and enrollment cap in November, she wanted a cap of 2,000, but she said she compromised with the college's enrollment department.

"For me, the goal is completion," Artis said. "We're recruiting graduates, not students."

It's a move that has drawn praise from the Commission on Higher Education, the state's education oversight body.

"The move that Benedict College has made should be applauded because it offers students more access and affordability," the commission's interim executive director, Jeff Schilz, said in an email. "At least three public universities in South Carolina have frozen tuition at least one year recently, and as the growth in the number of students going to college continues to slow, my guess is more colleges will follow suit."

Those schools include: Lander University, Coastal Carolina University and College of Charleston, Schilz said.

Cutting costs

In 2011, Benedict's enrollment was more than 3,000, but the number fell to just over 2,000 by 2017. The loss of students meant millions in lost revenue, combined with high expenses.

"I had the expenses of a 3,000-student institution and the cash of a 2,000-student institution," Artis said.

To reduce costs, Artis oversaw:

  • Cutting 50 staff positions by either not filling job openings or laying off staff

  • Closing the college's day care service

  • Selling an off-campus dormitory and closing two others

  • Striking a deal with book company Follett to roll cost of books into tuition

  • Phasing out duplicative software

Benedict's model of funding the tuition decrease is different than many other universities, which decrease tuition by gutting their financial aid programs. Granted, the university will have to reduce some financial aid amounts to reflect the lower cost, but Artis said the college couldn't afford to entirely remove the financial aid program. If it did, students couldn't afford to go there.

The college also will no longer be open enrollment, meaning incoming students will need at least a 2.0 GPA to enroll in classes. Benedict will offer a summer course for students who don't meet that mark. If those students pass two courses, worth six credit hours, they will be allowed to enroll.

"Giving students a chance is a good thing, but you do them a disservice letting them in if they're not ready," Artis said.