SC college to cut tuition by 43%

ashain@thestate.comSeptember 10, 2013 

Betsy Fleming

  • Converse tuition cut

    $29,124: Converse’s “sticker-price” for a year’s tuition now

    $16,500: Tuition the women’s college will charge starting next fall

    $13,026: Winthrop University’s tuition, the highest of a S.C. public college

— Converse College said Tuesday it will slash the sticker price on its tuition by 43 percent to $16,500 a year.

Converse, one of two women’s colleges in South Carolina, now says it charges $29,124 a year for undergraduate tuition. But, on average, students pay $16,500 after grants and scholarships that reduce the tuition owed.

So after hearing students’ and parents’ concerns about tuition prices, the Spartanburg school decided to slash its sticker price by $12,624 to the average tuition paid – $16,500 – starting next year.

The tuition cut – a first in the state and among only a handful in the nation – will lower tuition for many students. The school also will keep offering scholarships and grants to students who now pay less than $16,500 in tuition, Converse president Betsy Fleming said. “No student is going to pay a penny more than they are now.”

College tuition growth nationwide has far outstripped inflation in recent years, and news of Converse’s decision to reel back its tuition crashed the college’s website on Tuesday.

Converse announced the tuition cut after seeing its total enrollment drop over the past five years to about 1,100, but the school said most of those losses were students who took a graduate course or two. Undergraduate enrollment has increased, Converse says.

Converse plans to hold down future tuition hikes starting next year, with no inflation adjustment planned.

After that, “We’re not going to raise our tuition more than what a family experiences in their household income,” Fleming said.

Converse had the fourth-highest tuition among 20 South Carolina private four-year schools in 2012-13, according to data from the S.C. Independent Colleges and Universities.

The school would have ranked 14th with its new rate.

Even at the lower rate, Converse’s tuition would cost more than the in-state rate at South Carolina’s priciest four-year public college, Winthrop University, which charges $13,026 a year.

Converse’s room and board, a separate cost of an additional $9,120 this year, is not affected by the tuition cut.

All new and returning undergraduate students at Converse will qualify for the lower tuition rate, which is the same amount the school charged a decade ago. Tuition for graduate students will remain unchanged.

Converse is the first school in South Carolina to reset its tuition sticker price.

Several other small private colleges recently have dropped their tuition rates too, including Belmont Abbey in Belmont, N.C.; The University of the South in Tennessee; Concordia University in Minnesota; and Ashland University in Ohio.

Columbia College, the state’s other women-only school, has no plans to drop its tuition price, a spokeswoman said.

Mike LeFever, president of S.C. Independent Colleges and Universities, said he is not aware of any other South Carolina private schools seriously considering tuition cuts.

Converse lost a state-high 47 percent of its total enrollment from 2008 to 2012, according to S.C. Commission on Higher Education data.

Enrollment fell to 1,094 last year, ranking 16th highest among the 21 private four-year schools in the state.

The school said much of its enrollment loss has come from part-time students and did not affect the college’s bottom line significantly.

Converse said it spent 18 months researching the tuition drop and reworked its budget to avoid hurting its offerings.

School officials looked at lowering tuition after hearing concerns about rising costs from students and parents, Fleming said. Converse officials spoke with their counterparts at Concordia in St. Paul, Minn., which cut its tuition by $10,000, or a third, this year.

Converse found students considered $12,000 to $20,000 a year in tuition affordable for a private school, Fleming said.

Next fall’s $16,500 tuition could be lowered more by students taking state or federal aid, such as lottery scholarships and Pell Grants, she said.

Converse will save $9 million by not having to offer students grants and scholarships to lower their tuition from its current $29,000 sticker price.

About $3 million will be used to provide aid to students who need additional financial assistance with the new $16,500 tuition price tag, Fleming said. The school has $37.5 million in its scholarship fund.

Other money will go toward increasing faculty salaries and work on buildings, she said. Money also could go toward technology improvements.

Converse, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this academic year, said in 2012 that it was in talks with neighboring Wofford College about more collaboration between the schools.

However, those negotiations were put on hold as Wofford appointed a new president, a Converse spokeswoman said.

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