Seattle Pacific University will cut tuition by 25% from nearly $47,000 to a little over $35,000 starting next academic year.
It’s a bid to try to attract more students to the private Christian university in north Queen Anne. One outside expert described the move as “a lot more honesty about the pricing” of an SPU degree.
The decision doesn’t have anything to do with the coronavirus pandemic, SPU officials say; rather, it’s an attempt to balance rising prices against available financial aid money. As the university’s tuition has gone up, so too has the amount it must offer in institutional scholarships, said Nate Mouttet, vice president of enrollment management and marketing for the university. “It’s really a Catch-22,” he said.
This year, the published price for a year of tuition for undergraduates is $46,728. But Mouttet says only about 5% of students pay that price because of federal, state and institutional financial aid that cuts the cost for nearly all students. According to College Navigator, a federal higher education website, SPU students who were awarded grant or scholarship aid in 2018-19 paid about $28,000 in tuition.
The published price “scares them away,” Mouttet said. Starting next year, the price will be reset to $35,100, one of the lowest prices in the state for a private four-year college. SPU is also restructuring its scholarship offerings, including two new types of academic and faith-based scholarships that could drop the price even more for students who qualify.
The university started by Free Methodists in 1891 has long had to compete for students with the University of Washington and other top-notch state schools where tuition is a quarter of the cost. This year, for example, an in-state undergraduate at UW Seattle will pay $11,465.
Elsewhere in the country, quality is often associated with price — more expensive colleges are considered better schools, Mouttet said. But on the West Coast, state flagships represent a good deal, both academically and pricewise. That makes them tough competition, he said.
In recent years, particularly on the East Coast, a number of small private universities have lowered their tuition, including St. John’s College in Maryland and New Mexico, Sweet Briar College in Virginia and Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. Closer to home, in a different take, Pacific Lutheran University is offering undergraduate students a “plus” year — two additional semesters of school tuition-free directly after their currently scheduled degree completion date.
Schools that cut tuition tend to be small, tuition-dependent colleges that aren’t well-known nationally, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice-president of research for Savingforcollege.com, a financial aid site, via email. He counted 18 schools that cut their tuition in 2018. These schools bank on the idea that the cut “will yield publicity that helps them increase the number of applications from qualified students, yielding an enrollment increase that compensates for the lower tuition per student,” he said.
Schools that reset tuition are, in effect, being more honest about their pricing, said Lucie Lapovsky, an expert on higher education finance and governance. “For most schools that do this, the net tuition revenue is probably going to be the same,” she said. Lowering the price can attract more applicants: “Most that reduce price have room to grow, and want to grow,” she said. “I think it’s a strategically smart thing to do.”
SPU has an undergraduate enrollment of 2,700 this fall, but the university has enough room for about 3,000 students, Mouttet said. If enrollment increases, the tuition cut will pay for itself.
SPU officials also say they’re mindful of a looming demographic cliff, the result of a decline in the nation’s birthrate during the 2008 recession. The number of Washington high school graduates peaks in 2026 when 76,000 students are expected to finish public or private high school, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, a regional agency that publishes national enrollment trends. After that, the number of graduates slumps sharply, both here and across the nation. The university wants to be in a better position to compete for those students, Mouttet said.
Along with the price cut, SPU is adding two new academic scholarships to its offerings. For students who meet what SPU describes as the likely equivalent of admission requirements to the UW — a 3.5 GPA and a 1220 on the SAT, or, if they do not take the SAT, a 4.0 GPA — SPU will offer the In-State Matching Scholar Award to match the UW’s in-state tuition and fees. The award also applies to admitted students from California, Hawaii and Oregon to match their respective flagship universities’ tuition and fees.
For a student who can show their life is rooted in Christian faith, either because they graduated from a Christian high school (Catholic or Protestant) or were active in a Christian faith-based activity such as their local church or parish, Young Life, or Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the school will offer the Faith for the Future scholarship equal to at least 50% of the already-discounted tuition.
And it will continue its most generous scholarship program, Falcon Bound. For students who qualify for the state financial aid program called College Bound and have a 3.0 GPA or a 1220 or higher SAT score, or a 25 or higher composite on ACT, the university will backfill state and federal tuition dollars to make SPU effectively tuition-free. This year, 20% of incoming freshmen qualified for the program.
Also in Tuesday’s announcement, SPU said it will cap future undergraduate tuition rate increases to no more than 4% annually. Before this, the average has been a 5% increase a year.
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.