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Shifting Tuition: From Market to Mission-Based Tuition, Part III

Winebrenner Theological Seminary exists to equip leaders for service in God’s kingdom. We are prioritizing collaborative relationships, contextual education, and creating communities of learners in an effort to fulfill our mission during 2018-2023.

This short series focused on Shifting Tuition explores how a recurrent, or subscription, approach to tuition pricing is a mission-based strategy that can help Winebrenner fulfill our unique mission as we move forward. By “mission-based” I am suggesting that we believe it allows us to maximize mission fulfilment during this season. All mission decisions are built upon certain financial assumptions, and tuition pricing is no different. As one of our main revenue sources, how the cost of education is priced and collected from students for educational services provided has a major impact upon our overall operations.

Pushing this point further, just because something is mission-based doesn’t mean it lacks economic underpinnings. Jeff Jarvis in What Would Google Do? presents one of the strategies of web-based networks such as eBay, Craigslist, Facebook, Amazon, and Google when he writes, ”They charge as little as they can bear [which is] how they maximize growth and value for everyone in the networks.” In one company he explored he found that they “extract the minimum value from the network so it will grow to maximum size and value – enabling its members to charge more – while keeping costs and margins low” (30-31).

When a monthly payment plan is combined with a strategic priority of collaboration, the lowest possible monthly price allows for maximum growth of a collaborative network.

During the 2020-2021 academic and fiscal years, Winebrenner is testing a $300/month payment plan that is allowing us to gather real data-points that are informing conversations in real time as opposed to attempting to develop this in an abstract manner or one that is disconnected from what is really occurring.

Based upon our experiences so far, here are some items to consider. This may be especially valuable for those who are reading this who may be evaluating whether a recurrent payment model can work in your context.

– Consider your “industry:” Are there other organizations who are using this option? If so, how much are they charging?

In the case of Winebrenner Seminary, there are only a few seminaries working with a subscription model, with a range of $300/month to $750/month. The large difference in pricing is directly tied to the unique missions and strategies of each school.

– Consider Overall Mission & Strategy: Are there unique points of mission or strategy that a subscription model complements? Are there specific goals you want to achieve?

As I noted earlier, a recurrent payment model works well in our context with a strategic emphasis on collaboration. While there is no competition within God’s kingdom, there are market forces that assist in decision making within theological education. For example, our “per credit” tuition is currently $525 – as we’ve explored possible monthly price points we want to preserve the ability to say “enroll in our monthly payment plan and you will save even if you only take one course per trimester” (read more here about why Winebrenner follows a trimester schedule).

– Consider current and future possibilities when designing a recurrent payment model

How this is conceived from its inception point makes a difference. For example, headcount could be different than subscribers if a curricular approach is created that students may subscribe to a school’s services, but not be actively enrolled in courses.

– Consider timelines: How long will you stay at this price point? What factors will cause you to change the amount per month?

It’s likely that you’ll find the amount you charge per month may, itself, become an aspect of your “branding.” I’ve already heard people refer to Winebrenner and immediately begin talking about the per month pricing, as if it is now a part of our identity. Attempting to change an identify too frequently can create other concerns for stakeholders.

There is much more to consider, so please receive these as a few starting points for conversation. A change like this does create a certain amount of risk for staff. As Tien Tzuo highlights in Subscribed, the initial process of transitioning to a subscription model will more than likely lower an organization’s revenue while increasing users. A well-planned approach will balance out in the end (he refers to this process as “eating the fish” because of the diagram created by the inverse change in revenue for each). However, students have been taking risks for years by relying upon student loans to fund their education. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes, this is the type of decision that makes sure staff have “skin in the game” for overall tuition costs.

Finally, in God’s economy (which does often run counter to a US capitalist economy) we all can flourish. There are enormous financial resources available for carrying out our unique mission. We are not in competition with our students for these resources…we both can flourish.

My belief is that a subscription model is one way that seminaries can structure themselves by taking appropriate risk to enhance the work of God’s kingdom.

** One additional resource of interest may be John Warrilow’s Automatic Customer – he provides some helpful insights into making this transition.

– By Dr. Brent Sleasman, President
– Image by geralt, Pixabay and Adobe Spark