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Shifting Tuition: From Market to Mission-Based Pricing

If you ask 10 seminary leaders to describe the process they used to arrive at their current tuition pricing structure you will receive at least 10 different answers.  Unfortunately, if you catch someone in an honest moment, you may even receive a few who respond “I don’t really know.”

One of the common refrains you’ll hear in response to tuition pricing is related to some form of comparison to the “market” which typically means how one school’s tuition compares to another.  While this approach can be designed to serve students well, what it often leads to a complete disconnect between the price a school is charging its students in comparison to the actual costs involved in educating that same student.

There have been three distinct phases for Winebrenner’s tuition pricing.  I’ll outline the first two in this post:

Phase One: Market

Prior to 2018 Winebrenner’s tuition was based entirely on a number of peer schools and the tuition that was posted on their website.  For example, if a list of 10 peers were analyzed the decision would be made to be no higher than a designated number on the list (“we’ll be no higher than fourth”).  There are some advantages to this approach such as from a competitive standpoint always being able to say we weren’t the most expensive among our peers.  However, as the downsides became more obvious we intentionally moved away from this approach; among the concerns were (and this list is not exhaustive):

  • While other schools post tuition, they often hide additional costs in excessive fees so it becomes difficult for a student to truly compare one school’s pricing to another.
  • The further we dug into this approach the more we wrestled with the question who, really, are our peers? The information that the Association for Theological Schools provides through the IPPR (Institutional Peer Profile Report) is incredibly helpful. However, less value will be found in peer group comparison as a school gets closer to fulfilling its unique mission and strategy.
  • Finally, peer comparisons reinforce a competitive mindset that works against the idea that we are in unity to fulfill God’s kingdom purposes through delivering theological education.

Phase Two: Transitional

At the time we made this shift we did not recognize it as a transitional phase.  Very simply, we began with the number designated for tuition revenue in our budget and divided that figure by the number of students we established as our goal for the upcoming term.  We were also able to lower tuition by $30/credit and eliminate all fees and waivers.  In other words, we established a single “sticker price” for tuition.  We were aware of what peer schools were charging for tuition but it no longer determined our tuition pricing.  We established tuition that was a step closer to actual costs for education and provided clarity for students.  As with all tuition decisions, our Board of Trustees affirmed this pricing at the May 2018 meeting.

Beginning with the fall 2020 term we are experimenting with a recurrent payment plan, a mission-driven pricing structure that will be the focus of next week’s post.

– By Dr. Brent Sleasman, President

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