Top budget priority: smaller tuition increase

Most college students think a smaller tuition increase is to their benefit. If the St. Thomas Board of Trustees gets its way, that may be the case for the 2010-2011 school year.

“That sounds like a great idea,” sophomore John Hasbargen said.

Earlier this year the board of trustees made it clear that keeping tuition increases down was a top priority for the new budget due to current economics.

“They are basically saying to us that people are dealing with a new financial reality,” said Mark Dienhart, executive vice president and chief administration officer. “There are lots of families that have no more, or less, income and they just want to make sure that we adjust to that new reality even though our enrollment remains strong.”

Keeping tuition increases down has become something of a national trend with private colleges and universities since last year. Duke University (3.9 percent), the University of Pennsylvania (3.75 percent) and Drake University (2.99 percent) – just to name a few – all touted their relatively low tuition increases for the 2009-2010 academic year. But that was a trend St. Thomas was not a part of last year when it was among the first schools to announce its 2009-2010 budget.

“Last year was 5.9 percent,” Dienhart said. “Minnesota private [schools] were closer to 3.5 percent on average and nationally it was about that also. So we lived last year with an increase that was about two percent above what comparable institutions were going with and it fortunately didn’t affect our enrollment … The idea was to maintain the quality of what we were trying to do here.”

But unlike some schools with monstrous endowments, St. Thomas doesn’t have the financial maneuverability that other schools enjoy when it comes to cutting costs.

“If you’re an Ivy League institution like Dartmouth or Yale or Harvard and you have an endowment like Harvard does, you can choose to do pretty much whatever you want to do,” Dienhart said.

The disparity between schools with large endowments and smaller private schools like St. Thomas is the relatively small difference in actual cost and net cost. This means the difference between the sticker price and what is actually paid by the student. At St. Thomas the actual cost is considerably lower than the net cost because of the financial aid given by the institution.

“Right now, not all of financial aid comes from the endowment income,” Dienhart said. “A lot of [financial aid given to students] comes from redistributing dollars from other revenue sources, so if you want to continue to provide more financial aid, it comes from the overall revenues. If you don’t have additional revenues, you don’t have additional financial aid. That’s a problem for students who are in need or are getting financial aid.”

The majority of incoming freshmen receive some sort of financial aid from the university, Dienhart said.

“I get a lot of financial aid,” Hasbargen said. “It really helps. But lower costs are nice too, especially for the kids who don’t get a lot of [financial aid].”

Dienhart said it all comes back to cutting costs in one form or another without giving up much in terms of being a top-tier institution that attracts intelligent students.

The board of trustees will approve the 2010-2011 budget Feb. 18, 2010.

Matt can be reached at