Roger Williams U. Plans to Freeze Tuition and Urge Marketable Minors

October 24, 2012

Parents of prospective college students have a great fear: Their children will graduate with lots of debt and no jobs. To ease that fear, Roger Williams University introduced on Wednesday what it is calling the "Affordable Excellence Initiative," a set of measures meant to improve both affordability and career preparation.

Responding to anxiety about the value of higher education, said Donald J. Farish, president of Roger Williams, is part of his job.

On affordability, Roger Williams will freeze tuition at $29,976, the rate for full-time undergraduates in the 2013-14 year, and guarantee the same tuition price for four years for both current students and those who arrive next fall. The university, a private institution in Bristol, R.I., is not changing how it distributes financial aid.

Other colleges have opted for tuition freezes in recent years, in response to concerns about cost, but Mr. Farish initially hoped to make a bolder move. He wanted to reduce the college's sticker price, he said, to the average amount students actually pay after grants. But after some polling, Roger Williams officials learned that students and parents opposed that idea, by a ratio of two to one. They preferred a higher price tag and the chance of winning a large scholarship, Mr. Farish said. (Of course, if no such scholarship materializes, some students will not enroll.)

So the university settled for something smaller, said Mr. Farish. The thinking, he said, was "Let's not let it get any worse."

'2 Arrows in Their Quiver'

At the same time, Roger Williams is tackling students' career preparation, rolling those efforts into the Affordable Excellence project. The university offers professional and liberal-arts programs, and it wants students to take advantage of both. Those who choose liberal-arts majors will be encouraged, but not required, to add a professional minor—and vice versa.

That isn't to say that students shouldn't study something they're passionate about, Mr. Farish said. But they "need to be thinking about the practicalities." Completing both a major and a minor isn't too difficult at Roger Williams, the president said, and students often do, but they pick programs that are closely related. He wants to see more graduates with "two arrows in their quiver."

The university has added minors in many of its professional programs. A minor in engineering, for example, could give an English major the background to write training manuals, Mr. Farish said. A biologist by training, he doesn't mean to knock any discipline. "The practical gets you the first job," he said. "The liberal arts gets you to be CEO."

Roger Williams also plans to encourage all students to take part in experiential learning—pursuing an internship, for example, or a research project.

Despite those new efforts, bound to be mentioned in student recruitment, the university isn't looking to increase its enrollment, Mr. Farish said. However, its location in the Northeast, where the number of high-school graduates is projected to decline, makes demographic change a concern.

The new program is proactive, the president said, a push against what he called "the tendency in higher education ... to say, 'We've been doing this a thousand years, we know what we're doing, leave us alone.'"

Campus officials hope to spark discussion, at Roger Williams and beyond, about ways to better prepare students for success after graduation and alternatives to private higher education's high-cost, high-aid model.