On the morning of Aug. 31, William Jewell College students received individualized letters from Eric Blair, vice president of enrollment and marketing, alerting them to a 45 percent discount to tuition set to take effect starting in the fall of 2021. Jewell’s full-time undergraduate tuition, which currently stands at $33,500, will be reduced to $18,360. Room and board costs will also be slightly reduced.
Along with being alerted to the tuition reduction, students were told in these letters that their Jewell scholarships would be reduced – so that students will have approximately the same net cost at the new rate. However – due to reduction in room and board costs – Blair shared that Jewell students, on average, would actually be paying between $300-$400 less under the reduced tuition, despite the proportional reductions in institutional aid. Each student who received this letter was given an approximation of the new cost of attending Jewell for the 2020-21 academic year.
When explaining why the College decided to make this nearly 50 percent reduction to their tuition cost, Blair shared that the move was chiefly motivated by a desire to make Jewell appear more transparent, accessible and affordable than its previous sticker price had led prospective students to believe.
“When we looked at data and perceptions of students and families in the market, they did not understand the true affordability and the value of Jewell. The price point that we were at and where it placed us in the market – the sticker price – that $45,000 [tuition plus room and board] cost in the market created the perception that Jewell was inaccessible and unaffordable by many families to which it is actually accessible and affordable once we were able to engage them in an aid conversation and give them scholarships,” Blair said. “Our goal with the change is to create clarity to the marketplace as a whole – and that includes current students – to what would more closely resemble what it truly costs to go to Jewell.
“So, that’s to establish [the] long-term viability of the College, to make sure that we are being authentic in what we’re asking students to pay…,” Blair continued. “What we came to see is that this region does not respond well to elite-level price points for the sake of creating an elite-level perception. What the region responds to is elite-level outcomes, which Jewell has and isn’t changing.”
Blair explained that the College significantly increased the cost of tuition in the mid-2000s in order to create a perception of prestige through price. The goal of this change was to increase interest in Jewell as a prestigious college because its sticker price would be competitive with other national private liberal arts colleges. This increase in price corresponds to the beginning of a steady decrease in enrollment.
“The biggest thing that coordinated with our negative trend in enrollment was the decision by the College in the mid-2000s to move to a higher price point… [Around 1996 to 2000], we were at a more competitive price point with other private colleges in this region… In 2006 – right before the recession in 2008 – the College made the decision to elevate this price point with the intent of elevating a perception of prestige, [with] the intent to become a national liberal arts brand. There were ways that could have been executed differently, but ultimately, it just doesn’t position any kind of organization well in this middle-of-the-country market. [The market] doesn’t respond to prestige through price like you see in other geographies,” Blair said.
Several students, upon receiving their letters alerting them to this change, contacted Cardinal Services and the office of financial aid to ask about the reductions to their scholarships, worried that their cost of attendance would increase significantly.
However, even if students saw some of their scholarships reduced significantly or eliminated completely, their total cost of attending has actually been reduced a few hundred dollars, as Blair explained.
“[O]ne could term that as a reduction of the scholarship, but from a value standpoint, it’s the exact same as it was. In fact, for many students it was bettered slightly by three to five hundred dollars because of that change to room and board,” Blair said.
“Not every aid category could be adjusted the same way, and so subsequently some students are seeing three unique scholarships go to two or one or, because it was pretty nominal, go to none because it was reduced past the point of what the scholarship provided against the old price… I do understand they may be perceiving it as if they lost some sort of recognition, in fact, they haven’t,” Blair continued.
Daniel Holt, associate vice president for institutional strategy, led the effort of applying the new tuition model to students so that they would see either no change in total price of attendance or a reduction of a few hundred dollars. Holt sorted through each student’s financial aid package individually and adjusted their scholarships on a student-by-student basis.
The scholarship model will be completely overhauled, and new standardized scholarships and aid programs will be instituted for incoming students in 2021. Current students will continue to pay their current rates and will not receive the new standardized scholarships.
The College made the changes in order to change the perception of Jewell’s affordability. To financially compensate for the changes and reduced payments for several students, the College will need to recruit an additional 23 students.
One of the programs most impacted by the reduced total scholarship amounts is the Oxbridge Honors Program. The scholarship was previously $26,000 per year, and that amount was given as a Journey Grant for study abroad during the junior year. The scholarship is now $9,250 per year at Jewell. Blair confirmed that students will still receive proportional financial aid during the junior year abroad – so the dollar amount of the scholarship will be significantly increased during that year. Additional scholarships will be made available to a select number in the program to provide full tuition and room and board.
While students generally understand the changes in tuition, several expressed concerns with the ways the decisions were made. The initial news about the changes either left students assuming their education would cost significantly less – with the news of reduced tuition – or significantly more – with the news of reduced scholarships.
The primary student complaints regarded the methods of communicating the changes in tuition and scholarships. Trent Brink, sophomore business administration major and member of the football team, offered his perspective on the announcement.
“My Monday brunch in the Cage was soon interrupted with a swarm of panicked students ripping their mailboxes open to discover a rather confusing letter from the school,” said Brink. “I decided to join in on the frenzy and see what the deal was. When you open the letter and see the nearly half drop in tuition, it’s super exciting. But myself along with everyone else – athlete or not – found their scholarships reduced by 20 to 30 percent.”
“While I understand that we end up paying the same or, for some, even a few hundred less, and that it’s designed to bring more students to campus, I feel like the communication could’ve been stronger here,” Brink continued. “A preemptive email would’ve been nice. It’s not like everyone checks their mailbox, so I think a lot of the panic was because of that. It seems that the [confusion] has died down. But [amidst] the coronavirus, added confusion is the last thing any Cardinals need.”
Isabel Warden, sophomore public relations major, described her reaction to learning of the changes.
“I had the notion that since tuition was going down, I would have to pay less since my faculty scholarship stayed the same. However, that was not the case. I still had a theatre scholarship, but my Jewell access grant was cut in half and my Faculty Scholarship went down to zero. It just makes me feel like I worked hard on my academics for no reward. I mean, obviously, college is a great reward, but it’s expensive,” Warden said.
Olga Morales, sophomore public relations and theater major, expressed a similar sentiment.
“I do believe [Jewell] tried to be better, as in more affordable tuition to prospective students, but I do believe they should’ve asked current students’ inputs of [making changes to tuition] as well. Mainly because some of [the current students’] scholarships were reduced by a lot (for example, my theatre scholarship went from $22,000 to $5000), and others who had certain scholarships no longer have them due to the tuition cut,” Morales said.
“Although they stated it was ‘proportional’ I don’t really believe it was because it did [affect] a lot of students being able to afford college especially those paying out of pocket,” Morales continued. “Especially for some who now [need] to pay more the next academic year than this current year. Hopefully they’re open-minded over helping current students to fix their financial aid due to budget cuts.”
Morales’ perspective is representative of many students whose initial reaction to the news was stress about potentially no longer being able to afford Jewell. This miscommunication was a point of criticism about the announcement of the changes.
Jewell alumnus JD Daniel, ‘19, reflected on his experience with the College’s communication process, and remarked that he thinks further transparency is needed.
“The reaction from my fellow alumni seemed to be that they felt it was unfair to them and they were shocked and indignant. I think this reaction defeats the purpose of positive change, and there’s no way Jewell can issue back pay to alumni while also having the funds to keep tuition reduced for the future… I’m inclined to view this as a positive change. However, I’m still unclear on what finances are actually going to look like for students going forward,” Daniel said.
Every student should have the same, or a lesser, total cost for the 2021-2022 school year, according to Blair. If a student thinks their total cost is increasing, they should contact the financial aid office, as any increase in cost is the result of a mistake in calculating individual scholarships and aid.
Blair expressed his understanding that students, and others in the community, may disagree with the process but emphasized his commitment to the College’s handling of the situation. While Blair understands students would want input in the decisions, he explained that collaborating extensively with students could have led to rumors of changes, misinformation and stress. The College emphasized their desire to work out concerns through one-on-one meetings to make sure individuals are clear on their own positions.
The tuition changes are ultimately framed in the larger discussion of Jewell embracing radical inclusivity.
“[Radical inclusivity is] the greater story. What you’ll see in terms of the messaging is that we’re not going to be posting firesale billboards all over Kansas City that we’ve reduced [tuition] 45 percent. Our message is ‘Opportunity Without Barriers’ because it’s around the greater sense of becoming a more accessible and equitable institution,” Blair said.
“That, [becoming a more accessible and equitable institution], starts with authenticity with the price point. That starts with removing barriers like a $300 enrollment deposit, [which] we began taking that away last year. And, it’s only going to be $100 going forward because we were seeing that as a barrier,” Blair continued. “It’s moving to holistic admissions and not putting so much weight on the standardized test. Instead, [the standardized test is] one way a student can demonstrate [qualification] but there are other primary ways by presenting their citizenship, their co-curricular engagement, through their writing sample, as well as in their GPA – which has shown, statistically, to be a better indicator of long-term academic success and work ethic over the standardized test, especially for students who may be middle-tier on standardized tests.”
Blair noted that plans for this reduction in tuition have been in development for approximately two years. Jewell’s enrollment and marketing team did extensive research into colleges and universities that rolled out similar plans – including Kansas City area institutions like Avila University – and specifically focused on elements that made the reduction either successful or unsuccessful.
“Unsuccessful cases are institutions who reduced that and then had to continue to reduce further because they weren’t positioned well from an outcome standpoint – they didn’t have that strong of a product from a college experience perspective,” Blair said. “They didn’t do enough research on where they needed to be priced within the market, and subsequently, it just created concern and they got back into a not as high of tuition but still a high discount perspective.”
Given that these plans have been in development even prior to Blair stepping into his role in May of 2019, COVID-19 was not a factor in the decision to reduce tuition.
“[I]t was not a response to COVID. It was something that was planned and would be happening to us regardless of COVID… Our enrollment was up in spite of COVID. We did some really good things… We want more students to become critical thinkers because we believe it’s going to benefit the Kansas City region and the globe as a whole to produce more Jewell graduates.”
Students who have questions about the effect of the tuition reduction on their financial aid package can schedule a virtual meeting with the office of financial aid at https://calendly.com/williamjewell-finaid.