While we are proud at St. John’s of having resisted so many trends in higher education, we did not resist them all. Fueled by the idea that families believe high price means high quality, most private colleges—led by the wealthiest schools—have embraced an escalating pricing model called “prestige pricing.” And St. John’s has followed. All told, over the past two decades, tuition at private colleges has risen an astounding 157 percent. St. John’s tuition rose 163 percent, three times the rate of inflation.
Today, most families read one message in these astronomical sticker prices: You cannot come here.
The time has come for colleges to make a transformational change around college affordability and transparency, and St. John’s is taking the lead in redefining the financial model.
On the face of it, a St. John’s education does not look that expensive. How expensive is a large table, some chairs, a chalkboard, books, and tutors? Between classes, students aren’t working out in expensive gyms, performing on professional-level stages, or choosing which gourmet dining option might entice them. They are reading. And the cost to St. John’s to provide this for each student is approximately $60,000 a year.
Much of what makes St. John’s so distinct also makes St. John’s so expensive.
St. John’s educational structure represents perhaps the most expensive business model in liberal arts education. Our commitment to small seminar classes rather than large lecture-style halls is unwavering. So is our commitment to caring for the finest full-time faculty in the nation, in lieu of shaving our costs through the use and abuse of adjunct faculty. And our long-standing devotion to providing the Program to students at both ends of the country, on small campuses without economies of scale, is also unwavering. But these commitments bind us to a financial path with little flexibility.
Last year, tuition at St. John’s was more than $52,000. This makes St. John’s one of the most financially inaccessible colleges among its peer institutions. Notably, 53 percent of the students who were admitted to St. John’s in 2017 but chose not to enroll attributed their negative decision to “cost” and “financial aid.” And what about the potential Johnnies whom we don’t even know about? The ones who dream of a St. John’s education but choose not to apply due to the published tuition?
Alumni tell us that St. John’s is unaffordable, that they cannot send their children to St. John’s, and that they themselves would not be able to attend St. John’s today based on the current cost of tuition. And they question our complicity in a national social failing wherein a college education is no longer seen as accessible and colleges no longer serve as ladders leading to social mobility.
The truth is that while tuition keeps going up, financial aid—often offered to almost all admitted students—has gone up even faster. Unfortunately, most families are unaware of this fact. According to a 2017 Chronicle of Higher Education Report, 60 percent of American families do not know that private colleges discount their tuition price for incoming students. This destructive cycle, publishing perennial tuition increases while discounting tuition for enrolled students at extraordinary rates, is antithetical to St. John’s core values of authenticity and honesty.
Access to college should not be a bewildering game with hidden rules.
We are changing that for all future Johnnies.
But the fact remains that the distinctive education St. John’s offers is very expensive. St. John’s must now solve the problem of maintaining its distinctiveness while at the same time becoming clearly more affordable and accessible.