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What a Wonderful Week!

May 13th, 2013 by dfarish

It’s been quite a week here at Roger Williams University. We have been more than a little curious regarding the impact that Affordable Excellence would have on the retention of our current students, and on the enrollment of new students who will be entering this coming fall. Given the number of private colleges in the Northeast, coupled with a continuing decline in the number of high school graduates in New England, competition for new students in our region has never been more fierce.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal (“Colleges Cut Prices by Providing More Financial Aid,” May 6, 2013) reports that the average discount rate (the amount of prospective tuition revenue that is returned to students as financial aid) rose to 45 percent for the 2012-13 academic year, the highest ever – and all indications are that the discount rate for the coming academic year will be even higher. When 45 percent of tuition dollars are used not for actual instruction, but simply to lure people through the front door, colleges are hard pressed to offer a quality educational experience. They try to stay ahead of their competitors by significantly raising the sticker prices for tuition each year, in order to generate new dollars that can be given as aid. Of course, their competitors do exactly the same thing. The consequence is that the published prices make college seem increasingly unaffordable.

As readers of this blog know, RWU’s Affordable Excellence model is designed to lead us in a different direction. Rather than raise our sticker price in order to generate more aid dollars, we chose instead to do the opposite: freeze our tuition price, guarantee the entering class no tuition increase for four years, and look to alternative revenue streams to ensure that the money we have to provide a quality education keeps pace with inflation. We now rely on tuition for just two-thirds of our actual educational costs; the other one-third comes from money that we raise in other ways (endowment drawdown; rental of facilities; summer school; continuing education; the annual fund, and so on).

But the other half of Affordable Excellence is our focus on providing an even better educational experience, in part by increasing the opportunities our students have to engage in project-based learning. Our Community Partnerships Center, new in fall 2011, undertook almost 40 projects this spring semester, involving more than 300 students, and we have received more than 90 proposals from the community for the upcoming fall semester. We are within reach of our goal of involving 800 students annually, meaning that we will average one such experience for every student during their career at RWU. Since the primary purpose of project-based learning is to couple theory with practice, our graduates will leave with the kind of practical experience that is highly valued by employers – meaning that our graduates will be highly competitive for the best jobs.

So how did Affordable Excellence affect recruitment and retention? Well, we shot right by our target for new students, exceeding our goal by about 50 students. Fortunately, our campaign to encourage more of our current students to study abroad in the fall semester, rather than waiting until the spring, resulted in an increase of 60 students who will be traveling this fall. Consequently, we will have the residence hall capacity to serve this somewhat larger class of new students. (Since more than half our students study overseas at some point in their RWU careers – mostly in the spring semester – we won’t have a problem accommodating our new students next spring, either.)

In addition, 88 percent of last year’s freshmen have already registered for fall classes, the largest freshman-to-sophomore retention percentage in our university’s history!

Without further analysis, it’s too early to say that exceeding our target for new students, and dramatically increasing our retention rate, are directly attributable to our Affordable Excellence campaign – but at a minimum, we can conclude that Affordable Excellence didn’t hurt! We are hearing reports that some New England colleges are down in enrollment by as much as 20 percent, an indication of just how challenging the market has become. Perhaps we’ll see some of these schools trying some variation of Affordable Excellence themselves in the coming years!

On a completely different topic, this past Saturday night we hosted 200 guests at our annual Captain’s Cup – an event that is focused on our nationally ranked sailing team. Parents and alumni – some from as far away as California and the Caribbean – attended this event, and the numbers grow each year.

This year’s event was particularly important, because we are endeavoring to raise $3 million to build a Sailing Center – a venue that will be of considerable value to the campus as a whole, and to the local community, but that is essential for us to remain a nationally ranked team. (We don’t give athletics scholarships, so the only way we have of recruiting talented sailors is by offering an excellent education, alongside decent sailing and training amenities.)

Our objective is to raise the entire cost of the Sailing Center through philanthropy – we will not use tuition revenue from our students for a facility that is not central to our educational mission. The question is, can we be successful at such an effort?

Well, on Saturday, we raised $1.7 million in a single night! Our Board of Trustees chairman, Richard L. Bready, pledged a $1 million matching grant, and the sailors, alumni, parents and supporters of the team came forward with an additional $700,000 that night. Coupled with the almost $400,000 we had previously raised, we are now at $2.1 million of the $3 million goal. We plan to break ground next March. (More details here...)

Roger Williams University has not had a tradition of philanthropy, but we fully recognize that achieving our goals as an institution requires that we now create such a tradition. I cannot tell you how gratifying it is to me, as president, to see the love that our students, our alumni, and their families have for this wonderful university. All the proof of that love that one could want was demonstrated this past week: we exceeded our target for new students, we blew the lid off our previous record for retention, and we generated well over half of the cost of a capital project in a single night.

RWU is a great place to be. Go Hawks!