A 29 percent tuition cut caps renaissance at La Salle

La Salle University freshman Gia Lanci (from left), junior Kieran Hughes and sophomore Robert Noga react to the news that their tuition is being reduced.

Colleen M. Hanycz is moving with urgency and substance to reposition La Salle University in a competitive higher-education market, after a year of layoffs and a deficit.

Since she arrived as president 15 months ago, La Salle has announced plans to build a new dormitory, remake the center of campus, overhaul the library, and cut 19 academic programs that attract few students.

She has appointed almost an entirely new cabinet and launched a marketing campaign heralding La Salle as the place where "explorers are never lost."

But that's not all. On Tuesday, Hanycz announced that La Salle would become the second college in the region to "reset" its tuition, cutting the $40,400 price by 29 percent for the fall of 2017. The new price - $28,800.

As with other tuition resets, the vast majority of students won't save anywhere near $11,000, because the university also will cut institutional aid, which helps offset the full cost to attend.

On average, students will pay $1,000 to $1,500 less next year than if the college had raised tuition 3.5 percent, as it does typically, said Tom Delahunt, vice president for enrollment services. School officials hope the lower sticker price will convince middle class families who often do not qualify for federal or state aid that a La Salle education is within reach.

"It's a renaissance of sorts, and it's kind of neat to be on the ground floor," said William Price, chemistry department chair and faculty senate president. "I reserve judgment until I see how this shakes out, but I'm not pessimistic."

Hanycz's vigorous agenda follows several years of struggle for the 3,200-student Catholic university in Philadelphia's Logan section. Last fall, freshman enrollment had plummeted 18 percent or 159 students from the year before, and 23 staff members were laid off. The school faced a $12 million deficit in its $132 million budget. Faculty and students were wary, and Hanycz was new, arriving from Brescia University College in Ontario.

"Throughout all of it, the one guiding post has been to come up with the best student experience La Salle can offer," said Hanycz, the first female and lay president in La Salle's 153-year history.

Coming from Canada, where college tuition is much lower and offset by taxes, Hanycz was dismayed to see how U.S. colleges have inflated tuition and institutional aid.

"Families can't even see what the real price is," she lamented on a video announcing the change. "Tuition just keeps going up, as does the discount rate, and you have this utter lack of transparency."

She saw Rosemont College on the Main Line last September announce that it would cut tuition 43 percent and reduce room and board to offer students a more realistic price.

La Salle froze tuition for 2016-17. Next year, it will roll back the price to the 2008 level. Room and board, which ranges from $13,000 to $16,000, is not part of the reset; it could be increased.

The current annual sticker price for La Salle will fall from the mid-$50,000s to the low to mid-$40,000s.

Several hundred students, attending the announcement on campus Tuesday, applauded when Hanycz showed them the tuition-reset video.

Paige Pullman, 20, teared up.

"I just think this president has done so much in so little time," said the junior from Northeast Philadelphia. "It's going to make La Salle University really stand out."

Students were to receive letters this week letting them know how much they will save next year.

Senior Chase Ott, 21, of Schwenksville, said students can put the $1,000 to $1,500 in savings toward room and board or meals.

"I know it may not seem like a lot of money, but for a lot of students here, it can be," he said.

Renee Olivett, 19, expects the plan to stir student interest.

"Some people see that sticker price, and they're immediately turned away," said the sophomore from State College, Pa.

Stephen Zarrilli, chairman of the board of trustees, said other schools might follow La Salle's lead.

"We felt we needed to break out of this horse race we were in with other universities and position ourselves in the market in a much different way," said Zarrilli, CEO of Safeguard Scientifics, a capital provider to technology companies. "We think it's something that others in the market are going to emulate but have not been brave enough to do so to date."

He said the university under Hanycz has "made great strides in putting La Salle back on a path not only of survivability but also of growth and sustainability."

After Hanycz arrived, she announced La Salle would thoroughly review every program, a process she also conducted at Brescia. La Salle faculty and staff rated and ranked 325 programs and initiatives - 177 of them academic - on their relevance to the school's mission and their financial viability.

Faculty members were apprehensive and wondered if their programs would be cut.

In the end, La Salle suspended entry into six undergraduate academic majors - public administration, geology, Russian, French, Italian, and German - 10 minors, two master's programs, and one doctoral program. The 84 students enrolled in those programs will be able to finish.

No full-time faculty will be laid off, Hanycz said, though some adjuncts may not be rehired.

Price, the faculty senate president, who has been at La Salle for three decades, said the faculty understand the need for change given fiscal pressures but have questions about how the university will be restructured. Hanycz, to her credit, has met regularly with the faculty senate, he said.

"There's a healthy tension there," he said. "I think it's all good."

La Salle's financial position has improved, Hanycz said. The $12 million deficit has been just about halved, with plans to erase it over the next few years. Freshman enrollment rose from 706 last year to 791 this fall, though it is still down from the fall of 2014's 867 total. (Overall enrollment, including graduate, is 5,215, down from 6,255 in 2014.)

Changes to the campus also are underway. The college plans to overhaul the library, turning part of it into a "learning commons" with a fitness facility, campus store, and cafe. A 1,000-student residence hall for upperclassmen is scheduled to open in August 2019.

The university's main quad will get an amphitheater, new furnishings, and a labyrinth with a meditative garden. College Hall has undergone renovations, and a new business school opened in January.

Students are excited about the changes, said senior Beckett Woodworth, student body president.

"It's cool that they are taking the bad news from last year and flipping it on its head," said Woodworth, 21, a politics, philosophy, and economics major from Glen Ridge, N.J.

Two weeks ago, hundreds of students - more than the administration anticipated - filled the arena to hear about the marketing campaign.

"They ran out of T-shirts," Woodworth said. "I unfortunately did not get one."

Student reaction collectively was "wow," he said. "There are big things happening here."

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