Philanthropy to allow dramatic tuition reduction at St. John’s College

 In Insights

CFA helps client find a Big Idea to solve Higher Education Tuition Crisis

“Are You In?” This is the question for St. John’s College alumni and friends as they consider the college’s appeal for participation in their recently announced campaign, “Freeing Minds.” A lead gift which matches donations dollar-for-dollar is motivating donors: on September 11 the college announced a $50 million challenge grant from the Winiarski Family Foundation on behalf alumni couple Warren and Barbara Winiarski. The Winiarski Challenge has given a major boost to a campaign that was already gaining positive momentum. Campaign success lies in the fact that the effort not only supports students, but also brings a pressing issue to life for all families with college-bound students: the escalating cost of a college education.

Creative Fundraising Advisors (CFA) was contracted by St. John’s College in 2017 to help develop the case for support for the college’s largest campaign. The challenge was one that many schools face: higher operating costs and fewer students paying the advertised price of tuition. St. John’s, a maverick known for its distinctive programming – the Great Books curriculum, graduates without prescriptive majors, 1:8 faculty student ratio – has made similar year-over- year tuition increases as other liberal arts colleges.

What could they do to bridge the gap?

CFA President Paul Johnson

CFA President Paul Johnson recognized that despite the distinctiveness of the college, leadership was planning to operate a traditional fundraising campaign. “St. John’s alums are very passionate about the quality of the program. It is an incredibly unique institution and it needed a unique approach,” Johnson said. Johnson sought to help the college develop what he calls “The Big Idea,” the driving concept that both insiders and campaign prospects find the most compelling
reason to give financial support. Johnson, along with Santa Fe President Mark Roosevelt and Annapolis President Panayiotis “Pano” Kanelos, worked together with other college leaders through a discovery process. Early on, it was clear that St. John’s alumni shared a desire for colleges to be more affordable and more transparent.

With tuition reduction as the focus, Johnson conducted interviews with key constituents and uncovered affirmation of the desire to cut the St. John’s sticker price as dramatically as possible. He also found that the majority of St. John’s alums eschew campaigns that build shiny new buildings for building’s sake. Both St. John’s College and their supporters desire the same outcome: for all to have access to an education that frees the mind.

CFA helped St. John’s articulate their vision in a way that appeals to their donor base. Several who know and believe in St. John’s mission were willing to take a leap to slash tuition by making significant endowment contributions.

Frank Bruni of The New York Times calls St. John’s tuition-cutting idea “consistent with its mission of pushing back against the fashionable norm” in his article, “The Most Contrarian College in America: What’s the highest calling of higher education? St. John’s College has some enduring answers.”

“It’s a visionary approach, but it’s also pragmatic for the long-run. The college wanted to reverse the higher education trend it had been following, and turn back tuition increases so that any qualified student can attend St. John’s. Uncovering this Big Idea was transformational for the campaign and led to the Winiarski challenge,” Johnson said.

The operating cost per student for the college is over $60,000. With success, St. John’s expects to lower tuition from $52,000 per year to $35,000. Through this campaign, college leadership is striving to deliver its remarkable program to students regardless of their financial ability by doubling its endowment.

“The impact of this campaign will be the reduction of one of the most significant barriers to admission, which also aligns St. John’s closer to its core values of offering an honest education at an honest price,” said President Mark Roosevelt. “When we were looking for a fundraising consultant, we really wanted a partner who would become a part of our team. We found that in Paul Johnson. He has been a crucial part of the team that has allowed St. John’s to launch the size of a campaign that will have a lasting impact.”

St. John’s is ranked in the top two percent of all colleges in the nation for alumni earning PhDs in the humanities, and in the top four percent for alumni earning PhDs in science or engineering. Soon, St. John’s expects to join another exclusive list: top of the heap in making higher education more affordable.

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