Prospective students appear to have responded favorably to the College of St. Mary’s effort to ease “sticker shock.”

The College of St. Mary lowered the sticker price of tuition last fall and appears to be piling up dividends because of it.

A sticker price of $30,000 seemed forbidding to College of St. Mary administrators, not to mention students, so the college dropped it to about $20,000 last fall.

Not only did the college want to diminish the appearance of high cost, administrators say, it also wanted to drop the actual cost for undergraduates. Numbers of lower-income students at the college were in decline, and the college didn’t like that trend.

Early indications show that students appreciate the change. Far more students of high financial need enrolled in the fall. More students of higher socio-economic backgrounds signed up as well.

“It’s truly a mission-driven initiative,” said College of St. Mary President Maryanne Stevens. “Because of our mission, we wanted to reach out to more students.”

The college is connected to the Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic organization founded in Ireland in the 1800s to serve and educate people in need.

Sarah Kottich, the college’s executive vice president, said the college already was satisfied with its enrollment, so the change in sticker price wasn’t about getting more students in the doors.

But as the College of St. Mary’s tuition sticker price rose toward $30,000 a year, Kottich said, fewer students of high financial need were coming. Seven years ago, the college’s enrollment included 59 percent who had high financial need, as determined by their qualification for federal Pell grants.

That percentage had dropped to 38 in 2016-17. But with the tuition reduction, the percentage of students with high financial need rose to 43 last fall, the college reported.

“And this doesn’t surprise me at all, because this was the goal,” Kottich said. The sticker price is the listed tuition price of a college, although most students don’t pay that rate. They receive discounts, scholarships and other financial aid that lowers the price considerably in many instances.

The college also has reduced the actual price of attendance by an average of $1,679 per year — from $16,259 in 2016-17 to $14,580. It is relying on increased donor support for scholarships and setting market rates for its graduate programs in order to generate revenue. Booming enrollment also boosts the college’s finances.

Enrollment last fall increased 9.3 percent, from 1,043 to 1,140. New full-time undergraduates with high financial need increased 26 percent, the college said, from 85 in fall 2016 to 107 in 2017.

Kottich said the college aims for a $100,000 surplus each fiscal year, which goes into the endowment. But this year, with enrollment booming, the surplus is expected to exceed $900,000, so some of that can be allocated to programs, labs and other things.

Liana Naquila, who is in her second year at the college, said it’s still expensive, but “they also gave me a lot of scholarships and financial aid.”

Naquila, 19, came to the College of St. Mary from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to study occupational therapy.

“I really like it,” said Naquila, who is eager to use her love of arts and crafts as therapy for children. “It is expensive, but it’s going to be worth it.”

Thomas Harnisch of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities said some colleges, especially small private schools, are lowering their sticker prices to stay competitive.

Students have many choices, are concerned about the debt they’ll face, and some are even questioning the value of higher education, Harnisch said. So the higher education marketplace is highly competitive, he said.

Stevens said it’s too early to call her college’s tuition reset a success. “I’m one of these people who likes to take the long view, so I want to wait another year or two,” she said.

She isn’t proclaiming victory — yet.

rick.ruggles@owh.com, 402-444-1123

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