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Grove City College keeps education affordable in surprising ways

| Sunday, April 29, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

Grove City College is an exception to most of the rules of higher education.

Dorms are single-sex at the private liberal arts school, located on a pristine campus 70 miles north of Pittsburgh. Faculty tenure is nonexistent. The college accepts no federal aid, and its students, who are required to live on campus, may not accept federal grants or loans.

Then there's tuition. Grove City's $13,598 annual tuition is less than half the $28,500 the College Board cited as the average at private colleges this year. It's even less than the bill at Penn State and Pitt, where state subsidies help underwrite tuition.

In an era when spiraling tuition threatens to put college education out of reach for many, Grove City officials are almost as proud of that as they are of the SAT scores of the school's incoming freshmen: 1244 last year compared to a national average of 1009.

"In Pennsylvania, there are 87 private colleges and universities, and we are 87th in tuition and 87th in tuition, room and board," Grove City President Richard Jewell said.

Don Francis, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, speculated that a combination of careful management and generous donors are at work.

"I don't want to disparage other colleges that use a different model, because some of them are able to provide access to low-income students just as effectively and perhaps more so than Grove City," Francis said. "But I guess Grove City is the best example in Pennsylvania of a school that has managed to really keep their tuition down in a surprising way. ... They've done an extremely good job of fundraising and managing their operating budget."

Grove City is the only Pennsylvania college to have a faculty member — Constance Nichols, chair of the education department — on Gov. Tom Corbett's advisory panel that is seeking ways to make college affordable and accessible.

Jewell insists there is no secret formula. Grove City, which calls itself an "undenominational" Christian college, simply hews to its Calvinist roots.

"We live within our budget. ... We run as much as possible on a cash basis. Room and board and tuition pay for 94 to 95 percent of our operating costs," Jewell said.

"There's a conceit that higher price suggests higher quality. That's not true here," vice president of finance Roger Towle said.

Arleigh McRae, 20, of East Brookfield, Mass, said he passed up offers from six other universities and an appointment to the Naval Academy to attend Grove City, where he is a biochemistry major.

"I just think it was a better fit for me," McRae said.

Chicago native Katie Cypher, 22, who will graduate with a degree in biology this month, is grateful she found a private college with a relatively low price tag.

"I'm looking at graduate schools now for physical therapy and realizing I'll come out of there $90,000 in debt. At least I'll come out of here with next to nothing in debt," she said.

She is among the 78 percent of all Grove City students who graduate in four years. That far exceeds Department of Education statistics that show just 58 percent of all college students graduate within six years.

Sarah Lapp, 19, a violin major from State College, chose Grove City despite the school's small music program.

"I wasn't planning to come here, but once I visited Grove City I changed my mind. ... One reason I came here is because it was smaller. And," she added, smiling, "it was cheaper than Penn State."

Grove City has not been immune to the forces that have driven college costs higher. A Tribune-Review analysis that showed tuition in Western Pennsylvania colleges increased from 52 to 116 percent over the past decade pegged increases at Grove City at 66 percent during that time.

Grove City eschewed expansion and building programs that left many schools with millions of dollars in debt, Jewell said.

Grove City has lower administrative costs because neither the school nor its students participate in federal grant or loan programs, Towle said.

Grove City withdrew from them after the Department of Education invoked mandates on colleges after the passage of Title IX.

The federal law that prohibits gender-based discrimination at schools that receive federal funds drove the expansion of women's athletics across the nation. But Jewell said Grove City's unsuccessful effort to overturn Title IX, which culminated in a 1984 Supreme Court battle, had more to do with intrusive federal mandates than gender equity in sports.

"We still have more women's sports than men's," he said.

Perhaps just as important, Jewell said, students and parents can count on the school for transparency in tuition. That's a rarity in the world of private colleges, many of which carry tuition sticker prices of $25,000 and up and then provide a "discount" to qualified students, some of which is underwritten by those paying the full price.

"Next year, tuition will be $14,000 here, and we will get $14,000 from every student," Towle said.

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