As soaring tuition costs scare off many families, a growing number of private colleges have embraced a marketing tactic associated more with selling airline tickets or flat-screen televisions than higher education: a price cut.
St. John's College slashed tuition from $52,734 in this school year to $35,000 in the next.
The liberal arts school, with campuses in Maryland and New Mexico, joined more than 20 others nationwide that have reduced prices in the past three years.
The movement exposes a reality of higher education long hidden in plain sight: The difference between sticker prices and what the average student actually pays is often vast.
St. John's started pondering a shift in 2017, as its total charge for tuition, fees and room and board neared $70,000 a year. Few would ever pay that much at the school, which provides financial aid or merit scholarships to almost all of its students. Still, the college worried about the optics of a $70,000 sticker price.
"Is that tenable? Is that right? Is that who we are?" asked Panayiotis Kanelos, president of the campus in Annapolis, Maryland. "Is it right for us to expect families to bear that burden?"
The answer, he said, was no. The new price, counting fees and room and board, will be about $49,300. The average financial-aid award would reduce the bill to less than $25,000.
Twenty-three private institutions have reduced tuition since 2016, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "The trend is beginning to pick up," said David Warren, the association's president. These schools view cuts as "an important tool," he said, to help them stand out in a crowded market.
Their reasons vary. Some need to bolster recruiting in the face of major financial challenges. Others want to escape a pricing formula that assumes prospective students view high tuition as a mark of educational quality even though they simultaneously seek significant discounts or financial aid.
The average sticker price for private colleges is about $48,500 for tuition, fees and room and board, according to the College Board, a nonprofit organization representing thousands of educational institutions. However, sticker prices above $60,000 a year have become commonplace, and a growing number top $70,000.
The most prestigious schools enroll large numbers of students willing and able to pay full price. Federal data show the share of full-paying undergraduates in 2016-2017 - those who received no grants - was 42 percent at Princeton University in New Jersey, 50 percent at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and 57 percent at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut A similar pattern held at numerous other colleges.
Revenue from such students, plus philanthropy and endowment payouts, helps schools recruit from a broad spectrum of economic backgrounds and award adequate aid to those in need.
But many schools have few full-pay students. The Washington Post found more than 310 colleges and universities in 2016-2017 where at least 95 percent of undergraduates received grants or scholarships. (For St. John's, the share was 97 percent on its Annapolis campus, 99 percent in Santa Fe, New Mexico.)
At such schools, sticker price may be more of an aspirational statement than a revenue generator.
Even so, sticker prices usually go up faster than inflation. Knowing this, students and bill-paying parents hope the increases remain manageable. Their best-case scenario would be an occasional price freeze.
Debate over tuition at public colleges and universities is perennial. Political pressure has grown in recent years to limit increases or even make public college free.
Now, price cuts among private colleges could be signaling a pivot point in that sector.
Sweet Briar College in Virginia, which nearly closed in 2015 amid financial difficulties, cut its price 32 percent for the current school year, to $34,000 for tuition, fees and room and board. The women's college, which had 337 students in the fall, aims to boost enrollment and compete with public universities. "We are very serious about being excellent, relevant and affordable at the same time," Sweet Briar President Meredith Woo said.
Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania will cut tuition 32 percent in the coming year, to $32,000 (not counting fees and room and board). The echo on 32 is not accidental. Carl Strikwerda, president of the 1,700-student college, said he wants to grab the attention of middle-class families.
"What we've found with them is, more and more, that higher tuition is just a turnoff." Those families might know in theory that the sticker price is just a starting point, he said, but "they just can't believe that colleges give enough financial aid to make it work."
Colleges are required to post calculators online to enable families to get a quick estimate of potential financial aid. But it's not clear how much help these "net-price calculators" provide to families with modest resources and little experience in college finance.
Price cuts are risky. If they are not deep enough, they won't get noticed. If they are too deep, colleges could lose substantial revenue. "This is not for the faint of heart," Strikwerda said. To succeed, he said, a college must convince prospective students of the quality of the education it offers regardless of price.
Colleen Hanycz, president of La Salle University, said the 5,700-student school in Philadelphia has thrived since cutting tuition 29 percent in 2017. "We had a sticker price at that time, close to $41,000, that almost nobody was paying," she said. Hanycz said transparency matters to consumers fed up with the vagaries of college pricing.
Too often, she said, families must endure "Wizard of Oz nonsense" as they seek to learn the bottom line. Hanycz described the mixed messages they hear: "Well, there's that price, but if you knock on Door No. 3, you might get a discount."
Parents of first-generation college students "don't even know how the game is played," Hanycz said. "I really couldn't stand the inequity in that."
Under the new pricing, the university's net revenue per student has risen, Hanycz said, but she declined to say by how much.
At St. John's, with about 900 students in Annapolis and Santa Fe, the price cut coincides with a fundraising campaign to support what the college calls "an honest education at an honest price." The rollback pegged tuition to a level not seen for more than a decade.
The college's distinctive model, based on close reading and discussion of great works of Western civilization, is labor-intensive and expensive.
There are no lecture courses, no adjunct faculty and no majors. The Johnnies, as students are known, excel in croquet and have a rivalry in that pastime with their Annapolis neighbors at the U.S. Naval Academy. They address one another and tutors (the faculty) during class by the honorifics Mr. and Ms. (Some prefer the gender-neutral M. or Mx.)
They read a common list of classic books over four years, starting with Homer's "Iliad" and ending with Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" and works by the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger and Plato. Each semester, tutors meet in groups with individual students to evaluate their performance orally in a ritual called a "don rag."
Now, its recruiters have another talking point - an eye-catching sticker price.
"We are out there pushing this in every way we can," said Benjamin Baum, vice president of enrollment. "We are talking about cost in the same breath that we are talking about Jane Austen."
St. John's would like to grow a bit in Santa Fe but is not seeking to expand in Annapolis. Officials say finances are in solid shape. The price cut, they contend, will simply remove a perceived barrier for families otherwise drawn to a one-of-a-kind liberal arts experience.
"Every time you raise the tuition, the screw gets tighter and tighter on families in the middle," Kanelos said. "Something is broken in tuition pricing. We want to fix it now."
When East Dundee, a tiny suburb of Chicago, ordered body cameras for its 17 police officers, Terry Mee, the police chief at the time, told local reporters the devices would promote "officer safety" and "positive interaction with the public."
But before a single incident could be recorded in the village of 3,000 people, Mee retired, and the new chief, George Carpenter, persuaded the Village Board in February to cancel the program, arguing that the $20,000 annual fee for the cameras and video storage couldn't be justified amid budget concerns.
Body cameras "are wonderful for winning public trust," Carpenter said. "But it's expensive."
In recent years, after a spate of fatal police shootings sparked nationwide protests, politicians and community activists seized on police body cameras as a way to restore public trust. Although the cameras were widely adopted, many departments - especially in smaller jurisdictions - are dropping or delaying their programs, finding it too expensive to store and manage the thousands of hours of footage.
The police department in Wahoo, Nebraska, ended its program in November after a new state law required video to be stored for at least 90 days, causing the annual price to spike to $15,000 - a big cost for a force of five officers. In Arlington County, Virginia, the Police Department decided not to use body cameras after a pilot project revealed an estimated annual cost of $300,000.
And city officials in Madison, Wisconsin, in November rejected a proposal to spend $104,000 on a body-camera pilot program. While cost was the primary concern, activists and city officials also worried that the videos might be turned over to federal immigration officials and used against undocumented immigrants in the community.
"A call for transparency is not the same thing as accountability," activist M Adams told the Madison Common Council. "If we as a community don't have the power to interpret the footage, if we as a community don't have the power to make a decision about the outcome of the footage, then it makes no difference how much footage that there actually is."
Most departments that have ended body-camera programs are in smaller jurisdictions; Axon, a body-camera manufacturer, said every one of its clients that has canceled contracts cited costs.
"The easy part is buying the body cameras and issuing them to the officers. They are not that expensive," said Jim Pasco, executive director at the National Fraternal Order of Police. "But storing all the data that they collect - that cost is extraordinary. The smaller the department, the tougher it tends to be for them."
Though urban areas with high crime rates are often viewed as having the greatest need for police body cameras, a Washington Post database that tracks fatal shootings by police shows that such occurrences are more statistically prevalent in small communities. Of the 1,800 departments that have reported a fatal police shooting since 2015, nearly 1,300 were departments with 50 or fewer officers.
About half of the nation's 18,000 law enforcement agencies have some type of body-camera program, with many still in the pilot stage. Some outfit patrol officers with the cameras, while others require everyone to wear a camera, including police chiefs. No government agency or industry group tracks the number of departments that have ended their body-camera programs.
Costs have spiked in recent years in some regions of the country because of new state laws that require long-term storage of video footage. One of the first police agencies to stop using body cameras was in Jeffersonville, Indiana, where police ended their year-old program in 2016 after state lawmakers voted to require storing the videos for at least 190 days.
At the time, at least seven other states had similar storage laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Now, at least 14 states have passed laws that set storage requirements.
In 2016, the U.S. Justice Department surveyed police departments that had not yet begun using body cameras, seeking to identify possible deterrents to the programs. Seventy-seven percent cited costs, including for data storage. Thirty-nine percent cited privacy concerns, including times when domestic violence victims and the mentally ill are captured on video during police response calls.
The Bureau of Justice Assistance, a division within the Justice Department, offers grants to help agencies finance their programs, and 339 grants worth nearly $70 million have been awarded since 2015.
But the grants cover the initial equipment purchase, not ongoing storage fees. Justice Department officials said the grants are meant to "foster novel and innovative practices" that become "self-sustaining."
In Virginia, Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler said he held off on buying body cameras as he watched his peers experiment with the programs. He was worried about the cost of storage and the time and expense of processing public information requests for the footage, because the videos must be reviewed - and often edited - to protect the privacy of people captured in the recordings.
Roessler also wanted time to establish clear policies for how officers would be held to account if body-camera footage captured misconduct.
"My peers said, 'Wow. I didn't think of these things,' " Roessler said. "You have to have a policy to hold people accountable. If you don't do that, the program fails. . . . If you aren't going to release footage, you aren't building trust."
Roessler said that his department - the largest in Virginia - recently completed a 180-day pilot program and that American University researchers are now assessing it, including the costs.
Prosecutors, too, are struggling to keep up with the added workload and cost of body-camera footage. In Wayne County, Michigan, a jurisdiction that includes Detroit, prosecutors were hit with $2.5 million in unexpected personnel costs - nearly an 8 percent increase in their annual budget - for work associated with preparing videos to be presented as evidence at trial.
Virginia Beach Commonwealth's Attorney Colin Stolle said video evidence has increased costs for his office by more than $1 million a year, a significant impact on a $10 million annual budget. Stolle is adding 14 employees - lawyers, paralegals and clerks - to a 93-member staff to handle the heavier workload.
"A lot of police departments, from a transparency standpoint and from a liability standpoint, went out and purchased body cameras. I certainly understand that," Stolle said. "What was not part of the conversation is what will be done with all the recorded evidence when it's used in a criminal case."
Stolle said he's also worried about the effect on court-appointed defense attorneys, who are typically paid $250 per case in Virginia, a fee schedule based on the assumption that it takes about three days for an attorney to prepare a case.
But reviewing video evidence has bumped the average case preparation time to a week or more, Stolle said, and he's afraid the shift will cause local lawyers to opt out of the program, which provides legal representation to people who can't afford it.
Virginia legislators created a group to examine the rising costs, estimating in December that prosecutors' offices across the state collectively would need to hire 101 assistant commonwealth's attorneys and 57 paralegal and administrative positions to keep up with the extra work. These conclusions are based on the group's findings that an extra position needs to be added for every 75 body cameras, at a total cost of about $6.4 million a year.
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The Washington Post's Julie Tate, Steven Rich and Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.