The Corner

Politics & Policy

A Good College Education Can Be Affordable

College officials often complain that it’s just not possible for them to contain (much less lower) costs and therefore either tuition must rise or the government has to step in to keep college “affordable.”

For evidence that this just ain’t so, look to Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. In today’s Martin Center piece, Jenna Robinson writes about the ways Bill Thierfelder (the college’s president) has been keeping his school affordable since 2004.

Thierfelder’s first effort was to cut tuition, but back in 2004, the Chivas Regal effect was still very strong — that is, most students (and more so their parents) figured that high cost meant high quality. But after the Great Recession hit, he found a different mindset among his customers. Now, he says says, “65 percent of the market stops looking at schools with a sticker price above $24,000.” The college lowered its tuition and enrollments and revenues went up.

Crucially, Belmont Abbey avoids the debt that many schools face because they build new buildings unnecessarily, while failing to maintain existing structures. Thierfelder told Robinson, “We are different. Very cautious about expansion. We refurbish, expand, reuse. We are keeping things up to date, but we won’t overspend on it. We’re very careful about the financing. And always looking at the bottom line.”

Belmont Abbey is an unapologetically Catholic school where “truth” has not yet become an outmoded notion.

A solid education without having to go far into debt. Why are there so few schools like that? (Hint: government meddling.)

Robinson concludes: “Belmont Abbey believes its plan will continue to attract students even as the market shrinks. ‘The challenge for all small liberal arts schools is to be true to your mission and responsive to the marketplace,’ Thierfelder says. ‘If your mission isn’t noble, honorable, and worthy, you probably won’t make it. If you just offer a generic product, you won’t survive. Small, personal liberal arts colleges must inspire, compel, draw people in. That’s what we do.’”

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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