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Christian Colleges Feel the Tuition Squeeze

Several Christian colleges and universities freeze or cut tuition to make Christian education more accessible

Kathryn Post

Gordon College is among several Christian colleges and universities cutting or freezing tuition this year in an effort to make private Christian higher education more accessible. 

The Massachusetts-based college announced a 33 percent tuition cut last week. The cut will go into effect in fall 2021, reducing Gordon’s tuition to $25,250 and its annual “sticker price”—including tuition, room, board and comprehensive fee—from $50,650 to $37,950. According to the results of a 2019 survey by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the nondenominational Christian college is now one of only 11 CCCU schools to ever reset its tuition.  

“We’re hoping that we’re at the leading edge of a larger movement whereby Christian higher education makes a larger commitment to becoming more affordable for more families,” Gordon President Michael Lindsay told Religion News Service. “We’re also hoping that this major push will increase access opportunities for students who are the first of their families to go to college, as well as students from underrepresented groups.”

The announcement follows an anonymous $75.5 million donation to the college last year, the largest donation ever made to an evangelical college. Those funds—coupled with another $50 million raised—are going directly to support scholarships, freeing up other resources.

The school intends to retain scholarships during the tuition reset: “We’re doing something novel by doing a sizable reduction in tuition and fees, but also still retaining virtually all our scholarships,” said Lindsay.

Lindsay said Gordon has been working to make this tuition cut possible for more than a decade, during which time the college has gone through the “painstaking process” of eliminating positions, reducing line items and increasing revenue.

Gordon College is far from the only Christian college to freeze or even lower tuition, and the reasons extend well beyond the altruistic desire to make college more affordable.  Changing demographics, the COVID crisis, and a growing scrutiny regarding the cost of higher education compared to its economic value have put downward pressure on college tuition costs at both secular and Christian colleges and universities.

Liberty University, by comparison, announced in September a tuition freeze for the third year in a row for residential students and sixth year in a row for online students.  Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Ariz., has also frozen tuition costs for the 12th year in a row, maintaining an annual residential tuition cost of $16,500. After institutional scholarships, the average annual tuition that students pay lands around $8,700, according to the school. 

GCU enrollment has exploded in the past decade, with less than 1,000 residential students in 2008 compared with the diverse student body of 22,000 this year—the school says 47 percent of their students are people of color. 

Houghton College in Caneadea, N.Y., adopted for the most radical approach seen recently. On Sept. 25, the college, which is sponsored by the Wesleyan Church, announced a 53 percent decrease in tuition costs, with a fall 2021 tuition rate of $15,900.

This drastic cut is made possible in part by a fundraising campaign that raised more than $70 million. It’s also due to Houghton’s decision to move away from the traditional “discount model,” in which colleges’ higher tuition rates allow them to offer institutionally-funded financial aid and merit scholarships.

Instead, Houghton is striving for what President Shirley Mullen called “obvious affordability” by bringing its tuition closer to what most students actually pay and eliminating non-donor-funded scholarships. Houghton still offers hundreds of endowed scholarships, according to Mullen, and the new model “will give us much more ability to make sure our scholarships are going to high ability, high need students, rather than high ability, low need students,” she said.

Transparent pricing and accessibility were also key motivators for Seattle Pacific University, a Free Methodist school in Seattle that announced its own 25 percent tuition cut along with a 4 percent cap on future tuition rate increases on Sept. 22.

“The perception of our top line price was becoming a greater and greater barrier,” explained Nate Mouttet, vice president for enrollment management and marketing. Mouttet said Seattle Pacific settled on a moderate price reset that would allow the university to lower the initial price barrier while also offering generous academic, merit and faith-based scholarships.

“Many students rule out a private Christian university because they can’t see how it’s going to be possible to afford it,” said Mouttet. “But all students should be able to at least consider a smaller private Christian university.”

Houghton’s Mullen noted that bold tuition cuts aren’t necessarily the right move for every institution. A lot depends on student body demographics, as well as a college’s competitors. Still, Mullen said, initial response to Houghton’s decision has been positive. The college is seeing an increased number of applications, and website traffic is up by several hundred percent.  

“I think that many families currently consider a private Christian education a luxury,” Mullen added. “Houghton’s mission from the beginning was to enable students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to have a high-quality Christian education.”

Christina Darnell contributed to this report. 

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Kathryn Post
Kathryn Post

Kathryn Post is a writer living in Washington D.C. Kathryn is a graduate of Calvin College, where she obtained degrees in writing and political science. Currently, Kathryn is an editorial assistant for Sojourners magazine. She enjoys writing on the intersection of faith, culture, and politics, and is particularly interested in racial justice, feminism, and mental health.

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