Small class sizes and modern technology add to costs.Newscom

If you drive along Interstate 94 through North Dakota, Father James P. Shea said, “You will see billboards for state colleges advertising against each other, all competing for the same pot of money.” 

And, he noted, the marketing budget that pays for those and other ads is likely to be subsidized by the state. That source of support is one reason why state institutions can have lower tuition than what’s found at Catholic colleges and universities, which do not receive public dollars. 

Father Shea is president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, where tuition, room and board total about $18,660 annually. According to the university website, it is “one of the most affordable private colleges and universities in the nation.” 

Many Catholic colleges are much higher, some topping $50,000. 

Lowering bottom line

“Our tuition fees are roughly $30,000, then with room and board, it comes close to being $40,000. That actually makes us a moderately priced option among private schools in Minnesota,” said Mark Dienhart, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. “But our students, on average, are paying quite a bit less.” 

Catholic colleges and universities lower the bottom line on tuition with an array of academic, leadership, needs-based and other scholarships for which the majority of students are eligible. 

“We scholarship 98 percent of our students because we are committed to keeping the price down for them,” Father Shea old Our Sunday Visitor (see related story, Page 2B). 

Operation obligations

That’s not easy when Catholic colleges and universities, like all private institutions of higher learning, have to meet their operation obligations without public funding. 

St. Thomas has 11,000 students, a physical plant valued at $701 million, and an annual budget of $193.1 million. There are 2,000 employees, nearly half of them full-time or part-time faculty, and the teacher to student ratio is 14:1. That’s one of the reasons that costs are so high, Dienhart said. 

“We have to keep up with modern technology when you talk about the science classrooms and the computer technology that you have to have on campus. We cannot afford to be 10 years behind the times,” he told OSV. “But there are certain things where we feature inefficiency, and that is, the small classroom sizes where there is personal attention for students who come to our institution. That is what parents and students are certainly looking for.” 

U-Mary has about 3,000 students, a 16:1 teacher to student ratio and an annual budget of $41.2 million. 

“The costs in a private college or university certainly goes up more quickly than in a public institution with things like health insurance for employees,” Father Shea told OSV. “In the last few years, we have had to increase our health insurance costs by about 13 percent a year. State institutions typically have a program subsidized by the state, and we don’t. But we have to keep up with the salaries and benefits that are needed to keep people happy and to pay a living wage.” 

Staying competitive

Dienhart called it a good “business model” to ensure that Catholic colleges and universities have “the very best teachers and scholars” for their small classrooms. Doing so requires being competitive with salaries, benefits and what the institution can offer its faculty in research capabilities, laboratories and technology. 

“There’s another ‘inefficiency’ at the heart of what we offer,” he said. “Some colleges will put graduate assistants in classrooms and labs instead of faculty members, and we don’t want to do that. There are some institutions that have had to make those decisions.” 

Expenses also rose in recent years as private colleges have had to meet growing needs for student counseling, everything from psychological counseling to programs for students with disabilities. 

As those and other factors drive up operating expenses, Dienhart said, “It’s difficult for a lot of folks to understand that we couldn’t charge what it costs to educate a student, and that we are providing educational services for less than what it costs us to do so.” 

St. Thomas is in its sixth year of a $500 million capital campaign, and $450 million has been raised so far. The largest single priority will be on student financial aid, which is crucial, Dienhart said, in making a college education affordable, and in making a college attractive to students. 

“We seem to be in a time when people want to label higher education as being a private good rather than a public good,” he said. “But everything you are reading and seeing is that the new jobs created in a new economy require at least two years of post-secondary education, if not four years. So we have to look at higher education as being a public good, not a private good, if you look at higher education as the single most important factor in producing personal wealth. That spells public good. And college education is about learning your own capabilities and your ambitions, and in becoming the kind of person you are going to be. It’s not just about money, it’s about fulfillment.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.