Willamette reduces 2021-22 tuition by almost $10,000, net price remains the same
The Willamette Board of Trustees voted this past weekend to reduce the College of Arts and Science’s (CAS) base tuition from $53,300 to $43,500 for the 2021-22 academic year.
However, all current students will continue to pay the same net price, the tuition amount paid after Willamette scholarships and grants are applied, as they do now. WU financial aid and scholarship amounts will be reduced for the 2021-22 academic year in order to account for the base tuition decrease, but “they will be reduced by an amount that keeps the net cost to each student the same as it was this year,” Director of Financial Aid Patty Hoban said over email. When asked if the discount rate off the base tuition price will shift due to the tuition change, Dean of Admission Mary Randers said over email that the discount rate next year is predicted to decrease from around 55 percent to 45 percent. Hoban said, “But again, that doesn't mean that students will pay more.”
Hoban added that the base tuition decrease will not affect grants and scholarships from outside-Willamette entities, and that it also will not affect room, board or book costs. Randers said, “State, federal, and outside scholarship aid levels all remaining the same allows for those aid sources to have a stronger impact towards a student's costs moving forward.”
Since the net cost is staying the same, Willamette is calling the tuition decrease as a “tuition reset.” The goal of the tuition reset is to push Willamette’s sticker price, the price before scholarships and grants are applied, down to more accurately reflect the net price. Thorsett said that students who come from wealthy school districts, schools with college counselors or have parents who went to college have more information about how financial aid works. Those who have less information about how financial aid works may be deterred by the high sticker price, “I’ve been really thinking a lot about the question of inclusion—when our list price is the median household income in Oregon, we present ourselves as being a luxury institution that’s designed by and for wealthy people,” University President Stephen Thorsett said.
Thorsett said that each student will be getting a letter from Willamette Financial Aid detailing their award adjustments. Hoban said, “Since each student's aid award is unique, Financial Aid will be reviewing them individually to ensure each student's net tuition cost will remain constant from 2020-21 to 2021-22.” Randers said that merit aid is being adjusted by about 20 percent, and that the maximum merit award has been lowered to $20,000. The highest award given out this year was $27,000. The tuition reset will affect current and future students equally, though current students will have to move to an aid package adjusted to a lower base tuition rate, while incoming 2021-22 students will only receive awards based on the new tuition rate.
The way students are evaluated for awards will not change: “Willamette applicants will continue to be evaluated for merit aid based on their application for admission, considered for competitive awards based on applications and auditions, and considered for need based aid through the FAFSA, paper FAFSA, or ORSAA,” Randers said.
Thorsett named the high sticker price an “equity issue,” and said that scholarships are often talked about as a method of opening doors for non-privileged people into a privileged place. “That’s just not the way to think about what we’re trying to do,” Thorsett said. “We want to be a place where students who have financial need feel at home, not like they’re coming and being welcomed into a place that isn’t theirs… it is [the tuition reset] more about what pricing says about our values than it has anything to do with economics or the finance of the institution.”
However, Thorsett said that students will save some money with the tuition reset. Tuition is normally adjusted yearly to account for several factors, including inflation. “It’s likely that tuition will go up year after year with something that looks like the rate of inflation, but it’ll be on a lower base. A three percent increase on a 53,000 dollar tuition is bigger than a three percent increase on a 43,000 dollar tuition, so there’ll be some additional savings around the edges,” Thorsett said. Additionally, tuition was not adjusted for inflation for the 2021-22 academic year, which will create more savings.
Even though students will save some money due to the tuition reset, Thorsett said the tuition reset doesn’t change much for current students and is more targeted towards the university’s communication with prospective students. He hopes that the decreased sticker price will encourage families “to take a second look and start to learn about the difference a school like Willamette can offer with its smaller classes and four-year graduation rates and all the other advantages that come at being at a smaller place.” He emphasized that the tuition reset is being made because “it’s the right thing to do and because it will help us function better internally and serve students who are moving between our schools.”
One of Willamette’s long-term goals is to build joint degree programs and make it easy for students to take classes across its colleges, including recent additions Claremont School of Theology and Pacific Northwest College of Art. According to Thorsett, it was hard to figure out how to make that goal easy when the tuition was so different at each college: “One of the other advantages here is that it brings all of our schools’ tuition to the same ballpark. They won’t be the same, but they’ll be closer to each other which makes it easier to figure out how to build joint degree programs or to allow cross registration. We’ve been doing it kind of on a case-by-case basis when we think about how to build the Business minor or the Data Science degree. But this will make it much more transparent and easy and hopefully make it much more common for students to be able to move back and forth.”
No tuition reset is currently planned for any of Willamette’s other colleges, but Thorsett left open the possibility: “We spent a long time this year really studying how tuition worked in the undergraduate college and this isn’t something you just decide to do and then do it. You have to work through all of the pieces, and we haven’t done that kind of work in the graduate schools. I think the Board is really interested in continuing their conversation to how tuition is set in the graduate schools and in a year from now or so, maybe that’ll lead to some similar conversations, but I don’t see the same obvious mismatch between the price and the cost that we see in the arts and sciences college.”
Willamette is the first liberal arts college in the Northwest to do a tuition reset, but not the first in the nation. Research on a Willamette tuition reset began in October 2019 when the Board of Trustees created a committee made up of trustees, administrators and faculty to look into a potential tuition change. Associate Professor of Economics Laura Taylor was a member of this committee. She said that the committee interviewed eight colleges that have already done a tuition reset: Avila University, Converse College, Drew University, Rosemont College, Sewanee The University of the South, University of Sioux Falls, University of the Sciences and Utica College. Additionally, they consulted [Lucie Lapovsky], an expert in higher education finance and governance. “We talked to a lot of people, did a lot of reading, considered where tuition resets worked and where they didn’t, and ultimately recommended the tuition reset to the Board,” Taylor said. According to Taylor, a lot of discussion was around how the move lined up with Willamette’s values and whether the move would be positively received by the student body.
Thorsett said: “Maybe it seems at first glance that it doesn’t matter very much as long as you have the financial aid there, but I don’t think that’s right… it’s more about questions of equity and inclusion than it is about money when it comes right down to it.”