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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

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By Carl Irving
New Concord, Ohio

Students at Muskingum (Mus-KINGum) College here complain about crowded housing, and faculty members vent about lack of classroom space.

But administrators almost welcome such gripes, because they signal a dramatic turnaround since 1995. Slashing tuition five years ago reversed chronic enrollment decline, which boosted revenues to help strengthen this isolated little campus at the edge of Appalachia. Campus veterans say that since then, several raises dissuaded a number of young faculty members from leaving, enabled the administration to budget for several new academic hires and programs, patch up neglected buildings and hire an architect to design the first new academic complex in 30 years.

The outlook now, they say, contrasts with gloomier visions that had prevailed before 1995. Enrollment has increased by 31 percent over the past five years, adding $4 million more in revenues annually.

Economists who study tuition issues in America praise campus leaders here for a successful public relations coup at the right moment, but doubt that the move at Muskingum can be successfully imitated. Still, the payoff seems to be long-term for a rural campus that must compete with a swarm of similar small private schools in Ohio and nearby states.

Muskingum President Anne C. Steele says a larger faculty and student body “makes for more stimulation intellectually.”  
The change took place amidst a flurry of national and regional publicity, after the college had announced that it would reduce tuition by 29 percent-from $13,850 to $9,850. Undergraduate enrollment now totals 1,575, compared with 1,091 in 1995, and freshman applicants have nearly doubled during the same time, approaching 2,000 a year. Although tuition has since increased to $12,250, that still leaves a $6,319 gap compared with average charges at 17 schools with which Muskingum competes for students in the region, according to Enrollment Dean Jeff Zellers. Including room and board, a year at Muskingum now costs $17,890.

By next year, three consecutive years of faculty raises totaling 17.5 percent will put the campus "ahead of the competition," said J. Ransom Clark, vice president for academic affairs. Professor Robert Burk, chairman of the history department and a University of Wisconsin at Madison Ph.D., said he had been "inclined to look elsewhere," along with a number of other younger faculty members, before prospects improved.

"There's less need now to hold the line on hires" of Ph.D.s, Burk said. Before, tighter budgets had forced the faculty to contemplate settling for doctoral students who had not yet completed their dissertations. Burk and other faculty members also say student aptitude has improved a bit over the past five years. The average student now scores about one more point, to "a high 22" on the ACT, roughly equal to about 1,060 on the SAT. At the same time, enrollment now includes more students from farther outside the region and urban areas.

"I've seen more 'skater kids,' with different personalities who believe in freedom and have a broader range of interests," said Kristen Walker, a 21-year-old senior and editor of the campus newspaper.

  One of the few U.S. colleges or universities to reduce tuition in recent years, Muskingum College now has higher enrollment and more money to spend on faculty salaries and new facilities.
Alumni have increased their donations, which reached a record million dollars last year. This has helped to increase the operating budget by $800,000 over the past two years. The alumni supported the tuition change from the start, according to the trustees' finance chair, William T. Dentzer, Jr., retired chairman and CEO of the Depository Trust Co. in New York. A fundraising campaign in the early 1990s had raised more than $35 million in pledges. Like Dentzer, many other successful alumni grew up in Appalachia, in "lower middle class families."

Board members joining Dentzer in a unanimous vote for the tuition cut included alumni Philip Caldwell, then chairman of the Ford Motor Co., and former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn.

Glenn grew up here, and if Muskingum had a pantheon he would be in it. Memories of his space feats-he was the first American to orbit the earth in space-are scattered around the campus, beginning with a huge cardboard cutout of him in a space suit greeting visitors to the admissions office. A replica of his capsule has a place of honor in the science building. Glenn, who returns periodically with his wife Annie, a fellow alumnus, attracted 50,000 people-the largest crowd New Concord had ever seen-when he returned in 1962 after his historic flight.

A smaller crowd, including many in wheelchairs, rose in welcome when he returned in 1998, after a space shuttle flight at age 77. During that flight, media from around the world had been based at the campus' John Glenn Gymnasium for the local angle. Ordinarily, Muskingum-supposedly derived from an Indian word, the meaning of which nobody now seems certain (guesses range from Eye of the Elk to Moose Eye)-is located in a very quiet village of 2,500 people. Scotch-Irish farmers who had come west on the new National Road founded the college in 1837, first as a religious training center to bring peace among warring Presbyterian sects. Women were admitted in 1854 as the school evolved into a college on a 215-acre site.

The decision to reduce tuition began with informal talks nearly 15 years ago, after enrollment had dropped by several hundred since the 1960s. By the early '90s, the campus faced three options, Zellers said: more tuition discounts, freeze tuition indefinitely, or lower it. "Everyone at first said a reduction was too dangerous; it would look like we're in trouble." he said.

"The board studied the matter for two years, and a lot of careful work was done to determine whether we should make this rather gutsy move," said Dentzer.

The decision followed Zellers' report that 90 percent of the students received discounts-70 percent had aid totaling at least $4,000-and that the campus facilities could absorb more students without expanding before reaching enrollment totals matching those nearly 30 years earlier.

Although it seemed a tuition reduction could be dangerous, "the risk of not acting would have been greater," Zellers said. "Otherwise there would have been no way to reverse the trend of students wanting more discounts." To check out this notion, he had hired the Gallup Institute in Princeton to question in some detail 612 parents of students in Ohio and nearby states who planned to attend college in the fall of 1996.

The results showed that, by a four-to-one margin, cost was the primary concern about attending a private college. Only 15 percent saw a tuition cut as a move of desperation, while 82 percent termed it responsible and wise. Zellers, who listened in on some of the interviews, said that at first parents indicated they would choose the most expensive campus because they assumed more tuition meant much more quality. But when asked if they would prefer to pay less for a college with slightly less quality, most of the parents readily agreed to the cheaper alternative.

The questioning indicated that the public didn't look at tuition from the perspective of campus administrators. "They're consumers and don't understand elitist perceptions we in academe have about ourselves," said Zellers. "We needed to listen to them."

The feedback from Gallup encouraged the Muskingum recruiters not to shrink from competing for students with richer and possibly more prestigious campuses in the region. "There's no question Wooster has more money and a somewhat better program," said Zellers. "But is it worth another ten grand a year?" The College of Wooster, 90 miles north of here, has an endowment totaling $225 million (compared with Muskingum's $50 million), and charges $27,200 a year for tuition, room and board. Average aid at Wooster totaled $11,846 per student this year. The SAT scores range between 1,060 and 1,280, about the same as five years ago.

"All this generated people's faith in the history and vitality of the institution," said former President Samuel W. Speck. "It made people feel good."

Jim Dooley (right) teaches a “Conservation Science” course at Muskingum, much of which takes place on a 10,000-acre piece of reclaimed strip-mining land, 12 miles from campus.  
Speck took office in 1987, just after the campus had to cut its budget by half a million dollars. Before leaving the presidency last year, after 12 years, he could report a special campus dividend-financial commitments from supporters for the first seven endowed faculty chairs in the campus' history.

Speck, a Harvard Ph.D. who had been a state senator for 13 years before becoming president, said his first priority in deciding about tuition was to confer with prominent economists who had studied tuition issues. Next came "getting the story out," which included "spending an enormous amount of time telling about it." The former president, now director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, drew the most widespread attention for Muskingum after publication of a favorable article in U.S. News and World Report, which since then has ranked the campus as one of the best bargains among private Midwest liberal arts colleges.

"My dad brought it to my attention," said Mark Fields, a 22-year-old senior from near Lexington, Kentucky. He chose Muskingum from among several schools in the region after calculating that, while it offered less aid, the lower tuition made it a better deal. "My sister was also in college, and I wanted to make it easier on my parents," he said.

Like many other private campuses, Muskingum also offers substantial aid, although Zellers estimates that tuition reductions now average about 30 percent compared with 40 percent five years ago. Fields, for instance, gets $1,000 in annual grants because he's a member of the Presbyterian Church, which is affiliated with the college.

Another such student is Chris Long, a 23-year-old senior who grew up on a farm near Carrollton, Ohio, who said neither he nor his two sisters could all have been studying at Muskingum simultaneously if it hadn't been for the tuition cut. The three of them also each get $500 annual discounts because they grew up in Appalachia. In addition, they share 25 percent reductions on two of their three tuitions under a "sibling grants" provision.

The benefits flowing both from additional tuition revenue and from contributions will include a new building for communications studies, the arts, and a theater. For the first time, the symphony orchestra will not be confined to performances in a classroom or a church. Pledges for the new building approach a million dollars.

The additional students have jammed up dormitories, because these days they seem to require considerably more room than their predecessors three decades before, according to administrators. Storage basements and unused cafeterias have been converted into dorm space, and four new townhouses were constructed, all made possible because of the additional available funds.

"Being larger makes us more interesting," said the new president, Anne C. Steele. "A larger faculty and student body makes for more stimulation intellectually." Steele, a graduate of Reed College and a Lehigh University Ph.D. who took over in January 2000, has set aside funds to encourage more faculty-student research. Stipends will be added next year.

One of these innovations involves Jim Dooley, a recent faculty hire, who directs a new "conservation science" major, which he calls the cutting edge of environmental studies. Two other faculty members have joined with Dooley, a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, to supervise study and research with 30 students, nearly twice as many as he had expected.

Much of this takes place 12 miles south of here on 10,000 acres reclaimed from strip mining that had been widespread in Appalachia as recently as the mid-'80s. Instead of waiting until they become seniors, the customary pace, Dooley's students begin their research as freshmen and sophomores, concentrating on what can be done to restore an area which is much like many other parts of Appalachia.

With encouragement from the college, Dooley has arranged for cooperation with a nearby public two-year technical college that offers wildlife management studies and has research equipment that Muskingum can't afford to duplicate. Herds of rare varieties of hoof stock, from white rhinos to endangered deer species, are kept in the restored area.

The scientists and their students currently are at work on drafting abstracts to submit to the Ohio Academy of Science. Later, Dooley said, papers on basic problems, such as how to restore nutrient-starved life where topsoil had been stripped away, will be submitted to national and international journals.

Muskingum's move is praised for both wisdom and foresight by Gordon Winston, director of the Williams College Project on the Economics of Higher Education. "They took a very hard look before lowering the sticker price, instead of gimmicking with fee cuts," he said. "They knew they were blazing new trails, and did it thoughtfully. And the public decided it was not a weakness, but to be applauded."

But Muskingum's good fortune also has to do with being first to do it, which resulted in lots of favorable publicity, Winston pointed out.

The college "orchestrated it about as well as any school could," said David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Both Breneman and Winston noted that while other schools have considered such tactics, the closest they have come has involved making statements that they try to keep their tuition increases tuned to the rate of inflation.

Wells College, a women's campus in Aurora, in upstate New York, did follow Muskingum's lead two years ago, reducing tuition and fees 29 percent from $17,550 in 1998-99 to $12,630 the following year. With room and board, total average costs, before discounts, now total $18,830.

  Senior Chris Long, with sisters Pam (top) and Jamie (foreground). All three are able to attend Muskingum at the same time because of lower tuition and special grants.
Since then, fulltime undergraduate enrollment has increased 25 percent from 322 to 468 students, according to the admissions director, Susan Raith Sloan. Average SAT scores increased 16 points, from 1,111 to 1,127. The cut followed a 30 percent enrollment decline in the prior five years, Sloan said. The change increased net tuition revenue by 41 percent in the freshman classes, partly because of a 13 percent decline in tuition discounts, according to spokeswoman Michelle Courtney Berry. The enrollment boost also helped stimulate a successful end to a $58 million alumnae fundraising campaign.

A study of the positive reaction to Muskingum's tuition cut did encourage Wells to do something similar, Sloan said. Wells also was at least partly motivated by its ability to endure as a women's campus, including, not long after its founding, successful resistance to overtures for a merger from Cornell University, 25 miles to the south.

But Wells, too, remains the exception. "Most other schools have settled into an enrollment management practice which involves individual discounts to individual students," said Winston. Thus, over the years, advertised tuition, which runs as high as $30,000 among the nation's prominent private colleges and universities, has become virtually meaningless.

The College Board's annual survey found that, before discounts, average tuition at private four-year campuses increased from $1,820 in 1971 to $16,332 in 2000. Taking account of inflation would raise the 1971 figure to $7,634. Public four-year schools on average have maintained far lower tuitions and fees to students, from $376 in 1971 ($1,577 in today's dollars) to $3,510 last year.

Since 1980, without including discounts, private tuition, adjusted for inflation, has increased 118 percent, compared with 114 percent at public campuses. During the same period, median family income rose 20 percent. During the past three decades, aid for those in need peaked at close to 90 percent in the mid-'80s and dropped to about 60 percent by last year, with more than half of that involving long-term loans.

As the top schools become wealthier because of a soaring stock market, Winston foresees a widening, worrisome gap creating an increasing financial squeeze on campuses down the line, which depend mostly on tuition for their operating expenses.

"That may be the free market at work, but the disappointing part is that it's to the disadvantage of the poor kids and to the advantage of the wealthy," Winston said. "It looks like it will significantly mess up access for low income kids, except for the very best." To complicate matters, there is resistance to cutting back on tuition charges because of "the old notion that you judge quality by price," Breneman said in an interview. "There's an inherent bias against price cutting." But he sees no alternative, and is concerned about growing public resentment.

Public campuses face price pressures from politicians because of adverse public reaction to rising charges. With state government pressures to hold the line on fees, many public universities have launched ambitious fund raising campaigns. The University of California has more than doubled its endowments to $6.1 billion, compared with $2.6 billion five years ago.

Williams, a private, but well endowed, campus, which has about 5,000 applicants for 500 freshman spots each fall, sought to respond to growing public concern by freezing tuition for 2000-01. "We made so much through a happy market, it made sense that some of this unexpected wealth be shared with parents," Winston said. But the freeze at Williams had no visible impact on similar campuses.

According to Winston, therefore, the main hope for private higher education lies in better public understanding of the fact that campuses really are hybrids, simultaneously churches and car dealers.

"What higher education gives away is in service of equality of opportunity, the democratic role of an educated citizenry, the contribution of education to economic growth," he wrote in a recent paper. To pay for this, he said, the campuses must seek to extract money from the public motivated by the "belief that society as a whole will be better off if more people are well educated."

Twenty-two-year-old senior Mark Fields, from Lexington, Kentucky, chose Muskingum over other colleges because tuition was lower.  
At Muskingum, that challenge has been met, President Steele said. Enrollment management experts, she said, saw a two-step process here: The price cut attracted the attention of prospective students, who then took a look and decided they liked what they saw and enrolled. Although few have followed suit, Muskingum continues to get calls from other campuses asking how they made it work.

Alumni, many of whom grew up in Appalachia, take pride in improving access for students, and the trustees sense that this is a "strong period in Muskingum's history," Steele said. "There's a great sense of optimism along with greater energy here. People are willing to come together and work through and solve the problems that always exist at a campus."

Freelance writer Carl Irving lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

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