Concerned about being able to compete with the country's elite private schools for top-flight but cash-poor students, officials with the University of the South: Sewanee chose to cut tuition costs by 10 percent next fall.
The decision -- a rare one amid years of tuition increases nationwide -- will save Sewanee students $3,570 this year and has created a stir among private colleges across the country.
"[This] is a rare but bold move that very well may have reverberating effects across higher education," said Tony Pals, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Small and selective private universities nationwide are anxious about how the economic recession will affect enrollment numbers long-term. Some private colleges have seen their freshman classes shrink while cheaper state universities and community colleges are booming.
Overall enrollment growth in the private-college sector was below 1 percent last year, Pals said, but schools such as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville grew more than 2 percent.
Almost all schools -- public and private -- have increased tuition costs significantly, and further increases are expected this year. Over the last 10 years, tuition at private universities nationwide increased by more than 50 percent on average, Pals said.
Sewanee's tuition went up 30 percent over five years, to $35,862, before the 10 percent trim decided upon last week.
Only 12 private institutions have lowered tuition in the last decade, Pals said, and none had the national profile of University of the South.
"Many schools can't afford to replicate [Sewanee]," he said.
Sewanee's capacity is 1,500 undergraduate students but it currently enrolls 1,401 undergraduates, down 2.4 percent from last year. The school's freshman enrollment has remained relatively flat over the last four years, hovering around 400 students.
But the school's Board of Regents wants Sewanee to grow its undergraduate population by 25 students a year, said the Rev. Donald Fishburne, a Chattanooga resident and Sewanee alumnus who now sits on the board. The tuition cut is one method for attracting more students, he said.
"We do believe this could encourage some students to look at Sewanee more seriously because it's more affordable," he said.
Vice Chancellor and President John McCardell, who has been in the job for less than a year and spearheaded the tuition reduction, said he believes colleges are pricing themselves beyond the reach of more and more families.
He also thinks the model of high tuition/high discount, which has encouraged private schools to get into "bidding wars" over how much merit aid they can provide to attract students, is becoming irrelevant.
McCardell, a well-known advocate for lowering the national drinking age from 21 to 18, is the former president of the highly selective Middlebury College in Vermont.
"I have been truly amazed by the reaction to this announcement, that confirms in my mind how much the landscape has changed," he said.
"If an institution had done this 10 years ago, the word must have got out that this place is in trouble. With this, we will have redefined our own financial model, which is to make ourselves a true value."
And some parents of Sewanee students are relieved, to say the least.
Bill St. John, a native of Connecticut whose daughter is a freshman at Sewanee, said he would "beg, borrow and steal" to keep Amy at the liberal arts college.
"Sewanee is just a great school. I never thought my daughter would ever go there," he said. "Everyone is under tremendous [financial] strain today. Everything has changed. Anything that can help is such a bright spot."
* Public four-year colleges charge, on average, $7,605 per year in tuition and fees for in-state students.
* Private nonprofit four-year colleges charge, on average, $27,293 per year in tuition and fees.
* Public two-year colleges charge, on average, $2,713 per year in tuition and fees.
Source: College Board