Spring 2009 | Finding the balance
A short course in educationomics
By Mike Dauplaise ’84
Exceptional value sees private college education prevail through economic and demographic change
Almost $22 million dollars. That’s how much money St. Norbert College awarded students in the form of scholarships and grants during the current academic year. For an institution that relies heavily on tuition to make ends meet, such “free money” represents a hefty commitment to making higher education affordable for students from all walks of life.
The perception that obtaining an education from a private, tuition-driven school is beyond the means of many prospective students is a challenging hurdle for St. Norbert and its peer institutions to overcome. Communicating the school’s value proposition and proclaiming the message of affordability is even more important to recruiting efforts during periods of economic recession.
Changing economy and demographics
Changing national demographics and the state of the economy are combining to generate a perfect storm in terms of enrollment challenges for private colleges and universities, according to Jon McGee, of the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota.
A vice president for planning, research and communication at the Minnesota schools, he also consults with other colleges and is in demand as a speaker on what he terms “educationomics.” He says a national decline in birth rates from 1990-97 foreshadowed a tightening of the potential student enrollment pool.
“We knew this was coming,” McGee says. “The thing we didn’t predict is the economy that made [previously high participation rates] possible has stalled out. Whether or not this is a long-term stall we don’t know yet, and therein lays the uncertainty.”
Colleges like St. Norbert and St. Benedict/St. John’s work to keep higher education affordable for an increasingly diverse pool of prospective students. But, ironically, just at a time when those students need help the most, the donors whose gifts make such support possible find themselves disconcerted by the current economic uncertainty.
The last time the higher education marketplace resembled that of today was in the early 1980s, shortly after the number of high school graduates from the baby boomer generation peaked and the nation was in a deep recession.
Between 1978 and 1993, the number of high school graduates declined 22 percent. Colleges countered that trend by attracting non-traditional students, such as boomers returning to school for innovative programs. These efforts resulted in an increase in overall college participation rates.
The prosperity of the 1990s and the start of the new century saw boomers’ children begin to make their way through high school, and colleges reaped the benefits with increasing enrollments. The Dow Jones Industrial Average sprinted from 3,309 in January of 1993 to 13,264 by the end of 2007, while the number of high school graduates increased 36 percent.
“There was nearly continuous economic expansion over that period,” McGee explains. “There were more students to enroll [in colleges], and families either had more money or access to more money on average. We should have succeeded!”
However, the number of high school graduates has begun to decline again, and more importantly, the demographic composition of those graduates is changing. The increasing percentage of minority graduates is creating tremendous opportunities for diversity, but maintaining college participation rates will become a challenge, particularly for private colleges.
“Minority students are less likely to attend a private institution,” McGee says. “On average, they do not have the same family resources and can’t enroll without substantial investments in financial aid.”
The good news is, college enrollment efforts can leverage past experience to succeed in the new marketplace. McGee has identified five lessons colleges can apply during periods of sweeping economic and demographic change:
“This is not going to be the last disruptive period in higher education, and the winners will be the ones who adapt,” McGee concludes. “As Will Rogers said, ‘Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you sit there long enough.’”
- Look beyond next year and prepare for the long run. Most colleges will experience a prolonged economic downturn that will cross recruitment cycles. The successful ones will plan for what they want to look like at the end, creating strategies that span multiple years.
- Don’t assume the past will be a prologue to the future. The tools colleges have developed for use in enrollment and budgeting may not work as well in an environment that’s quite different. A period of disruptive innovation such as exists today will reward creativity more than the status quo.
- Recognize the no-escape lesson. If you think change will miss you, you’re wrong. All institutions will be subject to these trends. Successful institutions will have to learn to live with and manage uncertainty, risk, cost and benefits.
- Don’t confuse participation with choice. In spite of the poor economy, the demand for a college education will remain high. The labor market continues to reward education, as there’s not a mass market alternative that offers a long-term income solution. However, high demand won’t necessarily mean people will keep making the same choices. There will be more price sensitivity and sorting in the marketplace.
- Embrace the silver lining. Value matters now more than ever, which is an advantage for a high-ranking institution like St. Norbert. Colleges have to know how they’re valued and understood by their market. They must be able to convey what they’re good at and describe the opportunities students have as a way to differentiate themselves from the competition.
Most students receive financial aid
There’s no getting around the fact that a college education costs money. However, the sticker shock that comes with annual bills that currently run $32,500 for tuition, fees, room and board can be tempered significantly through a variety of strategies. The average annual aid package for St. Norbert students is $19,000, and 99 percent of the student body receives some type of financial aid.
“Families need to be smart about the way in which they’re selecting colleges,” notes
Bridget Krage O’Connor ’93 (Enrollment Management and Communications). “Their decision should certainly include price, but should also take into account all of the other aspects: What’s the average indebtedness for graduates? How long will it take to graduate? How much personal support do I need or want? What kind of faculty interaction can I expect?
“All of those questions are components of value, which needs to be as much a part of the conversation as price.”
Between St. Norbert’s four-year graduation guarantee and the availability of aid, many students discover their net investment is similar to what it would have been at a state institution, where the average graduation timeframe is more than five years and the availability of scholarship and grant aid is lower.
A St. Norbert student’s ability to earn an income sooner while participating in service learning and leadership development opportunities all figure into the college’s value proposition.
“Higher education is still an exceptional investment,” O’Connor says. “Right now the general public isn’t aware of how affordable private education can be, and our challenge is to change that perception.”
In fact, the college is making history this year, offering the admitted class of 2013 more in academic scholarships and need-based aid than it has ever done before – some of the best news to be heard among the prevailing economic gloom.
Basic as it seems, all it takes to access some of the available assistance is submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Once the application is processed, the financial aid team can determine if the student qualifies for additional, free money.
“A lot of people feel they won’t qualify, but about two-thirds of our students demonstrate some type of financial need,” says
Jeff Zahn (Financial Aid). “The average St. Norbert student’s family has an adjusted gross income of just under $75,000. The biggest thing is just getting people to apply [for financial aid].”
Federal and private loans are common options for additional funding, while campus employment brings other valuable benefits along with its earning potential.
“It allows students to save more of their summer earnings to pay for tuition, fees, and room and board, knowing they can get a campus job to pay for incidental expenses,” Zahn says. “It also connects students to the college in a way other than academics, and we retain those people at a higher rate.”
Jennifer Buresh ’09 is a perfect example of a student who leveraged a variety of financial aid and work options to attain her goal of graduating from St. Norbert. The value of earning an education from St. Norbert was evident to the Denmark, Wis., native even in high school, and she set about applying for any and every type of scholarship she could get her hands on.
“I applied locally for any scholarship I could find,” Buresh says. “I ended up receiving seven or eight scholarships through St. Norbert, organizations in Denmark and a couple of companies in Green Bay, like Wisconsin Public Service. Those definitely helped me pay for my freshman and sophomore years.”
Buresh also received financial aid through state grants, applied for subsidized student loans and continued to work part-time jobs to earn her own money. She began waitressing at a family restaurant in Denmark when she was 14 and still works there on weekends, and landed a position in the college’s financial aid office during the second semester of her freshman year.
“Students need to complete the FAFSA form and make sure they put in any information they can,” she says. “Apply for anything you would be eligible for.
“It’s attainable with financial aid. You can do it.”
Did you know?
More than 96 percent of St. Norbert graduates are employed or attending graduate school when surveyed nine months after graduation.
Currently 99 percent of St. Norbert students receive some sort of merit or need-based aid. Overall, the average aid per student amounts to more than $19,000. For students who file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and qualify for need-based aid, the average aid package is $24,280.
A typical St. Norbert financial aid package, combined with the college’s four-year graduation guarantee, helps limit the average debt for graduates to a level comparable to that of public university graduates.
Of the financial aid awards St. Norbert College offers, about two-thirds are in the form of grants and scholarships, and one-third are loans and work-study.
Scholarships are usually based on academic performance or other criteria related to accomplishment, and are considered “merit-based” aid. Grants, loans and work-study programs are generally considered “need-based” aid.
Need is defined as the difference between the full cost of attendance and the estimated family contribution as determined by the federal government from information families provide on the FAFSA.
With St. Norbert’s four-year graduation guarantee, many graduates hold a degree in hand and are on to their careers or graduate school one to two years ahead of their peers who chose to go elsewhere.
Financial aid 101: an essay on affordability
Bridget Krage O’Connor ’93
Bridget Krage O’Connor
93 (Enrollment Management and Communications) spends her days getting out the word about the affordability of higher education. The chance to contribute a guest editorial spot to a local newspaper prompted her to get down on paper her core message to prospective college students and their families. By all means, make it your own elevator speech if you wish, and repeat wherever you meet others who might benefit from a St. Norbert education.
In times of economic uncertainty it is critical that America goes to college. An educated workforce is the key to our economic health as we pursue an ethical Wall Street, a revamped auto industry, strong international relations and green technologies. Yet families tell me they fear the cost of higher education is beyond their reach.
Because I grew up on a farm that was lost during the farming crisis of the 1980s, I know how hard it is to dream about college when money is tight. But I did and it paid off. With the help of scholarships, loans, grants and work-study I attended a private college. Today I work at that same college and help families understand that higher education should not be ruled out due to perceived cost. Financial aid is available, even if you just lost the farm.
Listen to an interview on the access and affordability of a college education with Bridget Krage O’Connor ’93.
If you are considering how to make college a reality, visit any and all institutions that spark an interest – regardless of the posted tuition price – and ask questions. Along the way keep the following in mind.
The sticker price isn’t generally the actual cost to you. A good rule of thumb is to find out the average financial aid package at the institution you are considering and subtract that amount from the posted tuition cost. Understand however that every student’s situation (financial need, academic performance, talent or other factors) will impact what kind of scholarships or grants are offered. Don’t assume you won’t qualify for need-based aid. The cut-off can be set at a surprisingly high level, depending on family circumstances. Remember, too, that while private colleges at first glance might look unattainable, they often can give away bigger scholarships and more need-based aid than many public institutions.
The time it takes to get a degree varies and impacts cost. Unfortunately, it has become quite common for a student to take five or more years to earn a bachelor’s degree. Some places, like St. Norbert College, guarantee students will finish in four years. Think of multiplying tuition by four years rather than five. Then consider earning a salary one year earlier. This is an important variable in the overall cost and should not be overlooked.
Student loans are available. Borrow a modest amount now for your education and it will pay you back. While there is much debate over the “go to college and earn a million more” cliché, an education will pay you back in opportunity and perspective. Despite the recent loan scare, the federal government has made it clear that colleges that participate in federal direct loan programs will not see a disruption of student loans. Ask if the institution is a direct lender like St. Norbert because it can be to your advantage. If an institution isn’t, then a third-party lender is generally the option and those loans could be harder to get in this economy. Also, the average student loan debt upon graduation varies with each school. You might be surprised to learn that private college graduates may have less student indebtedness than their public counterparts. Again, ask and compare for yourself.
It is important to consider all aspects of the educational investment, not just the posted tuition price, including scholarships, work-study, need-based aid; how soon you will complete the degree; how many loans you’ll have when done – and most importantly, the lasting cost to you, and our country, if you choose not to invest in education because of the shaky economy.
Finally, if it feels like it is too much to figure out, give me a call and we’ll work out a plan.
Bridget Krage O’Connor is vice president for enrollment management and communications at St. Norbert College. She can be reached at (920) 403-3109 or at