Rosemont College slashes sticker price; savings vary

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Sharon Hirsh, president of Rosemont College, announced the cost change. She said the hope is that families find they can have a private education “at public university prices.” (DAVID SWANSON/Staff Photographer)

Rosemont College on Wednesday announced it will cut tuition a whopping 43 percent next year and knock $1,900 off room and board in a bid to attract families scared away by a sticker price that this year topped $46,000.

The new price tag? $30,000.

But no students will see a $16,000 price cut, because the college - like many peers - doled out so much aid that few paid close to the sticker price.

Still, Rosemont officials say each student can expect to pay less. Their savings, the college said, will average $815 per student.

Rosemont's reason for resetting tuition is about more than saving current students money. It's about sending a message to the next generation of students that the private Catholic college on Philadelphia's Main Line is more affordable than its sticker price may have indicated, said Sharon Hirsh, president of Rosemont.

She's especially concerned about middle-income families - those who feel they can't afford the higher sticker price but also don't qualify for federal or state grants.

"We're hoping we can let families know that they can have a private college, a Rosemont College experience and education at public university prices," Hirsh said.

Hirsh announced the change Wednesday to rousing cheers from students and staff, and gave each student a packet showing what he or she would have paid under the old system and their new costs.

Even after Hirsh explained to students that they may save only a few hundred dollars, they said they were pleased Rosemont took a stand.

"They're not actually lowering the price as much as they are getting rid of the fake price," said Mukund Prabakar, 18, a freshman biology major from Saratoga, Calif., who will save $100.

Asia Lewis, 19, of Philadelphia, said she was almost scared away by Rosemont's old price. "I think it's going to attract a lot of people," said Lewis, a sophomore history/political science major who also will save $100.

More than two dozen colleges nationally have reset tuition in recent decades with varying success. Utica College in New York said Tuesday that it would slash tuition 42 percent. Rosemont is the first school in the region to cut so dramatically. Cabrini College in 2012 decreased tuition 12.5 percent.

Rosemont, Hirsh said, has become increasingly concerned about the practice of discounting in which colleges raise their prices and dole out aid to attract low-income students, high achievers, and, in some cases, just about anybody if it allows them to make their class minimums.

"It's a terrible model and a game that the schools and families are being forced to play," said Richard Geschke, chair of Rosemont's board of trustees.

The announcement also comes as some Catholic colleges across the region, including St. Joseph's and La Salle Universities, have lost enrollment.

Rosemont, a liberal arts college with castlelike buildings on a picturesque campus, has had tough times. Founded in 1921 as a women's college, the school was facing a $1 million deficit in its then $20 million budget when it went coed in 2009.

Since then, traditional undergrad enrollment has grown by about 100 students, to 448, and the college has not had a deficit in several years, Hirsh said. Overall enrollment, including adult undergrads and graduate students, tops 1,100.

While Hirsh said the college would like to grow - and could accommodate 600 to 650 undergraduates - that is not the motivator for the decision. Rosemont wants to send a message at a time when discount rates at colleges have hit an all-time high.

Colleges on average discounted their price for freshmen 48 percent in 2014-15, up from 38 percent in 2003, said a study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

"We found the discount rates are so high that they are causing declines in net tuition revenue for a lot of private colleges," said Kenneth E. Redd, director of research and policy analysis for the association.

Rosemont doesn't have to cut staff or programs to operate on what seems like a lot less tuition revenue. It simply will dole out less aid - in effect, lower its discount rate from 49 percent to 18 percent. Tuition will drop from $32,620 to $18,500 next year and room and board from $13,400 to $11,500.

Lucie Lapovsky, a former college president-turned-consultant, recently completed a study of eight colleges that rolled back tuition. Seven saw increases in freshman enrollment the first year, and of the four that made the change several years ago, all have maintained the increase, she found. Five had an increase in tuition revenue as a result of greater enrollment.

Converse, a women's college in Spartanburg, S.C., that reduced tuition 43 percent in 2014, has had a 16 percent jump in traditional undergraduates and a $3 million increase in net revenue, said Elizabeth A. Fleming, president.

"What surprised us," she added, "is how donors responded. Fund-raising has been huge for us."

Cabrini in Radnor, on the other hand, saw a small drop in undergraduate enrollment after its cut.

Some college officials say families still largely believe a higher price means better quality - the "Chivas Regal effect" - and they're looking for a big grant from colleges to say they got a bargain.

"Whatever the dynamic is, that is seen as a value," said Sister Carol Jean Vale, president of Chestnut Hill College, which decided against resetting tuition. Chestnut Hill charges $43,435 for tuition and room and board.

Hirsh, however, doubts most families still want to see those higher prices. She pointed to a Sallie Mae survey that showed many students eliminate colleges from consideration only based on price.

It's those families, Hirsh said, that Rosemont hopes to attract with an eye-catching lower tuition.

At Rosemont, 54 percent of students qualify for federal Pell grants for low-income families. And 43 percent are the first in their family to attend college.

"We want to give access," Geschke said, "to people who may not believe they have access."


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