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How Northeast Ohio’s private colleges are dealing with rising costs

Private colleges, like Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, are adjusting in an environment with rising costs and a competitive labor market. Photo: Robert Muller

Ursuline College has made it through its first 150 years, according to president Christine De Vinne, thanks to two things: planning and prayer.

Officials there will continue to do more of the same, she said. But rising costs and a stretched-thin supply chain are impacting that planning at small, private colleges such as Ursuline. The unadjusted inflation rate over the past 12 months clocked in at 8.3% in April, per the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Coupled with the ongoing pandemic and amplified enrollment struggles over the past few years, it’s one of the latest hurdles higher education is facing, especially those at more tuition-reliant institutions.

“One of the difficulties of this season of COVID is that planning has been more erratic,” De Vinne said. “We can write the plan, but we don’t know what the vendors are going to come back with, we don’t know what the supply chain is going to come back with.”

Ursuline, a college with a full-time enrollment of about 900 students, recently named Timothy Clymer as vice president for finance and administration at its Pepper Pike campus.

Clymer doesn’t think this bout of inflation is as big of a challenge as, say, the beginning of the pandemic or the Great Recession. He pointed out private institutions are facing the same kinds of struggles as businesses and individuals.

Longer lead times from vendors are extending the college’s timelines. It might take a year to replace a rooftop HVAC unit at Ursuline’s library. Updating a boiler in a dorm won’t happen until mid-September.

There’s the bustling labor market, too. De Vinne said the campus is implementing measures including shortened Friday workdays in the summer in an effort to help attract and retain employees.

And rising talent prices can get passed along to the college as a consumer. Campus officials try to build contingency planning into their budget to absorb hits when and where possible, but Clymer acknowledges it can be a challenge.

“A lot of these can be a bit of a surprise,” he said. “You don’t really know what your janitorial increase will be like until the contract expires.”

Baldwin Wallace University in Berea credits its long-term contracts for helping the college with about 3,000 full-time students to “manage the recent higher-than-usual inflation.”

“However, if inflation continues to go unchecked, additional efforts may need to be implemented down the road,” William Reniff, BW’s vice president for finance and administration, told Crain’s Cleveland Business in an emailed statement last month.

Travel costs are up for Malone University, impacting opportunities for both athletics and professional development, according to officials at the North Canton campus of about 1,200 full-time students. Hiring qualified candidates at “reasonable” pay rates continues to be challenging. Plus, leaders said inflationary measures are impacting investment returns on its endowment, though it currently clocks in at $25 million, up from a reported $22 million as of the end of June 2021.

Lake Erie College and leaders at its campus of about 1,000 students are feeling the crunch as well. Business insurance prices went up. Costs associated with horse care for its equestrian studies programs was another area of increased expenses.

“As an institution that relies so heavily on revenue from tuition, room, and board, the increased costs place a greater burden on fundraising,” officials at the Painesville institution told Crain’s via email last month.

And that tuition is increasing locally. New and transfer students at Hiram College will see tuition increase by 2% for the 2022–23 academic year to an estimated list price of $25,000. Undergraduates at Ursuline will see a list price of $36,390 for a full-time course load of up 12–18 credits. That’s 3% higher compared with the previous academic year. Tuition at Malone University also is going up 3%, to an advertised price of $33,400 per year for a full-time schedule.

Price tags already were trending up at private nonprofits. The average published price for tuition and fees at those four-year institutions across the country came in at $38,070 for the most recent academic year, about $800 higher than in 2020–21.

Yet some experts caution those upticks still might not be enough.

“Rarely do tuition increases cover all the costs that are expected, which will mean reductions in other areas to do what institutions feel are the basic essentials that they need to get done,” Jim Hundrieser, vice president of consulting services for the National Association of College and University Business Officers, told Inside Higher Ed in May.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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