SANTA FE, N.M. — A private liberal arts college with campuses in New Mexico and Maryland announced Wednesday a $17,000 reduction in its annual tuition, acknowledging that steady price increases in pursuit of prestige drove away many qualified students from families of moderate or modest economic means.
Tuition for the coming academic year will drop from more than $52,000 to $35,000 at St. John's College, which has about 800 students in Santa Fe and Annapolis who study the formative texts of Western civilization — from Euclid to Jane Austen — in small classroom settings with average of seven students per faculty member. The Santa Fe campus also offers graduate studies in the traditions of China, India and Japan.
College President Mark Roosevelt described the price decrease as recognition that most students do not pay the full price for tuition, and said the school was determined to become more affordable and accessible through need-based scholarships underwritten by philanthropic donations.
"We're trying to reduce the number of people who deem us unaffordable from sticker price alone," said Roosevelt, a former Massachusetts state legislator and superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools who led the re-opening of Antioch College in Ohio 2011.
St. John's College has been wrestling with budget deficits, as many nonprofit colleges that increased tuitions in the decade since the Great Recession are struggling to attract students amid lower enrollment linked to a good U.S. market for jobs.
Preston Cooper, an education policy research analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute public policy think tank, said the St. John's tuition announcement stands out.
"I haven't heard of anything quite of this magnitude before," he said. "A lot of schools have said they are going to freeze tuitions."
Roosevelt said that St. John's made a "mistake" by participating in a trend among private U.S. colleges of adopting tuition increases over the past 20 years that vastly outpaced inflation.
"We're opting out of prestige pricing, we're setting our tuition at a lower point," he said. "We're hoping it opens up more channels of communication to people to find out what we really cost."
The college also will offer $10,000 annual grants to New Mexico residents who attend starting in the fall of 2019 — effectively lowering their maximum tuition to $25,000. Roosevelt said that it is "still a lot of money, but we hope it brings people into the conversation" about attending.
The college estimates annual academic spending on each student at about $60,000 year, a reflection of the school's commitment to seminar-style classes with no adjunct professors to reduce expenses.
On average, students pay about $18,000 a year toward tuition, with the rest coming from grants and loans, Roosevelt said. The college provided $6 million in direct student aid during the last academic year.
To help lower tuition, the college hopes to raise $300 million in gifts from alumni and other philanthropists to double its endowment by 2023. On Wednesday, it announced a $50 million pledge from Stags' Leap winery founder Warren Winiarski and his wife, Barbara, through a family foundation to match new donations to St. John's. They are alumni.
Roosevelt said the new fundraising campaign is directed primarily at funding educational expenses and will not pay for new buildings or amenities — though it may pay for some campus maintenance expenses. St. John's has no stadiums, and athletics revolve around intramural activities and excursions by a mountain search and rescue team from the Santa Fe campus.
"Neither campus has a swimming pool," he said. "Our education is expensive to deliver. Why? Because it's around a table like this with 15 chairs and two tutors. It's an expensive model."
Annual tuition and fees at the Santa Fe campus exceeded $54,000 for the current school year. Room and board range from about $12,000 to as high as $20,000 — pushing the total yearly college attendance price higher.
Average student debt for the graduating class in 2018 was $28,219 at St. John's Annapolis campus and $27,686 for Santa Fe.
"We believe we did participate in something that was a mistake, which was this tremendous escalation in the sticker price, and we regret it," Roosevelt said.