Affordable Excellence: Year 2

Together, we’re doubling down on the lively experiment we launched a year ago.

Yesterday, in my annual State of the University address to the RWU community, I spoke about matters familiar to readers of this blog: the concerns of prospective students and their parents about the cost of higher education; rising debt loads for far too many graduates; and securing well-paying jobs after graduation.

I referenced President Obama’s challenge to the higher education community to make America’s colleges and universities more affordable and more accountable.

I pointed out criticisms from the media (including a recent cartoon in The New York Times on Sept. 1 that ridiculed higher education), and I referenced many polls and surveys that found both college presidents and chief financial officers overwhelmingly agreeing that the current high cost/high aid model for higher education is broken – yet choosing not to do anything to change the model.

I talked about our first year of Affordable Excellence – our efforts to answer the concerns of our students and their parents, and how those efforts were received. (I summarized much of the positive data in my August 26 blog post, And Another Academic Year Begins…)

I then told the faculty and staff the big news: our Board of Trustees has accepted my recommendation to “double down” on Affordable Excellence by once again freezing tuition at 2012 levels ($29,976) for the entering class in fall 2014 and guaranteeing no tuition increase for that class for their four undergraduate years at RWU. To my knowledge, no other campus has frozen tuition two years in a row, with a four-year lock-in guarantee.

In addition, the Board has authorized me to augment and enhance the “excellence” part of Affordable Excellence by, among other things, creating additional professional minors; by expanding our program of Living/Learning Communities for incoming freshmen from 50 percent of the freshmen this fall to 67 percent of the freshmen next fall; and by creating even more opportunities for our undergraduates to engage in project-based learning experiences both on and off campus.

The obvious question is, how can we afford not raising tuition? And the corollary: won’t freezing tuition inevitably lead to a decline in the quality of our educational offerings, as inflation eats into our fixed budget?

Well, the second question is based on a false premise. Freezing tuition in no way precludes us from generating additional funds from other sources (such as expanding summer school and Continuing Studies enrollments, and increasing our efforts in philanthropy).

In fact, the Board of Trustees would not agree to freeze tuition unless and until we could show how we had generated additional monies that equaled what we would have raised though a tuition increase.

A 3 percent increase in tuition nets us about $1.5 million. So each year that we can generate $1.5 million more than the previous year’s budget is a year that we should be able to freeze tuition.

Interestingly, by increasing our freshman-to-sophomore retention rate by 6 percent, we netted approximately $1.8 million – all by itself enough to allow us to freeze tuition for the entering class of 2014.

That increase in retention was due in no small measure to our decision to guarantee no tuition increase for four years for the class than entered in fall 2012 – students were not squeezed out by a price increase they couldn’t afford.

Sometimes, good deeds do go unpunished!

I also challenged the faculty and staff to work with the deans and directors to identify additional ways in which we can improve and augment the educational experience for our students. Our faculty and staff will be actively involved in formulating our plans, rather than being directed to carry out a plan dictated from the top. Consequently, we will be working as a true learning community, with everyone knowing how he or she is contributing to our university’s success, rather than simply responding to someone else’s directives.

We will also accept the task of identifying a vision statement for Roger Williams University (to what, as a campus, do we aspire?) and reformulating our mission statement (why are we here? what purpose do we serve?). These tasks will be undertaken by a committee of faculty, staff, students and trustees.

Finally, once we have a clear sense of our mission and vision, we will be ready to take on the challenge of a major fund-raising campaign. Our long-term goal must be to increase our endowment to the point where the annual drawdown is large enough to make a significant contribution to our operating budget. The larger the endowment, the lower we can price our tuition.

I hope you will continue to follow this blog – and that you will wish us well as we seek to chart a new course for our institution – one that will lead us away from the failed model of high cost/high aid and into a world where once again young people will be free to aspire receiving a high-quality education for an affordable price.