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Last updated: Sun. Aug. 31, 2014 - 04:47 pm EDT

Grace gets innovative to recruit students

Trims tuition, offers 3-year course plan

Kristen Bellinger, an 18-year-old senior from Columbus, Indiana, wasn’t sure where she wanted to go to school before she visited the campus of Grace College in Winona Lake.

“From the moment she stepped on that campus, she fell in love,” her mother, Karlyn, said. “The coach had made arrangements to practice. She stepped on the field and when she came back, she said ‘Mom, they prayed before they started.’ She felt so at home. The girls were so welcoming.”

A serious soccer player, Kristen was torn between the promises of club soccer and her Christian upbringing at First Christian Church in her hometown, her mother said, and was wary of what a Christian school was like.

“Academically she’s a 4-something (high school GPA). She’s played travel (a higher level of soccer play). Her team won state championships several times. She played in Germany. She’s got lots of opportunities,” her mother explained.

But the spiritual qualities led her to choose Grace. What happened next sealed the deal.

Grace College will reduce its tuition by 9 percent for incoming freshmen starting in 2015, the same year Bellinger plans to enroll. That means that the Bellingers, along with all the other parents of freshman students, will get a bill for $22,450 for the two semesters, $1,520 lower than the bill this fall’s students and parents received at $23,970.

Thereafter, each student’s yearly tuition will decrease by multiples of $500; $500 for the first year, $1,000 for the second and $1,500 for the third year for a total reward savings of $3,000.

And that’s not all, says Grace’s spokesman David Grout. Next fall, regardless of rank, there will be free textbook rentals kicking in, the cost averaging $1,200 a year.

For a four-year degree, the savings is $4,800.

The plan is that incoming 2016 freshman will pay a higher rate, but will still get the yearly tuition reductions and free textbook rental, he said.

The initiative called Measure of Grace has been dubbed a “game changer” by Grout, the media relations executive at this evangelical Christian school, which also features a seminary.

“We realize when you retain a student, it’s just easier than replacing lost students,” he said. Currently, the college’s retention rate is about 80 percent.

The game-changer tuition and book rental offer is available only to the 1,300 undergraduate students, including a record number of freshmen this year, 503. There are also 200 graduate students and about 170 online students. Grace also has three small satellite locations in Columbus, Ohio; Detroit and Indianapolis serving undergraduates, making the total enrollment about 2,200.

To grow as an institution, Grout says the college has instituted a three-year undergraduate program, something which the Bellingers found attractive.

“She wants to be a chiropractor. No matter what she does at Grace, she still has three more years of chiropractor school,” Karlyn Bellinger said. When she heard about the three-year degree with a fourth year for a masters, “I said, ‘Oh my goodness, I didn’t know anything like that existed.’ ”

Students can earn the 120 hours needed to graduate in 65 majors in three years by taking two online courses in the summer. The college also accepts credits from advanced placement courses, Grout said. Currently, 50 percent of students are considering the three-year track.

Chant Thompson, executive director for the North American Coalition for Christian Admissions Professionals in Huntington calls the move “innovative, out-of-the-box type thinking. It’s being responsive to the impact and the marketplace of higher education. There’s a whole myriad of opportunities to continue beyond high school and Grace College is being very creative and trying to respond to these options.”

He also credited Bill Katip, Grace’s president, for being “strategic and visionary.” He called it “an affirmation for retention in terms of that desire and trust they won’t go elsewhere. Huntington (University) did this a long time ago where you could lock into tuition.” According to Huntington University officials, that program is no longer in place.

While Thompson sees Grace’s initiatives as out of the box, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges in Washington, D.C., said that many colleges are being creative in designing their tuition packages to recruit students.

“Private colleges, even public colleges, are competing very hard right now to attract students to their campuses. Although the number of students has been rising, the number of traditional students 18 to 22 is actually starting to slide downward,” said Paul Hassen, director of communications and marketing.

The organization with 900 out of the 1,400 American private colleges as members has no statistics on the percentage of institutions that have come up with some sort of tuition reduction or other financial incentive.

“Some colleges have reduced their tuition overall. Other colleges have offered a lock-in. Other colleges have increased their financial aid. The categories are so wide in terms of what folks are trying to do,” Hassen said.

At Grace, current students whose tuition was not reduced were called into a meeting to explain the tuition reduction, including Hannah Kline, a freshman from Warsaw majoring in graphic design and marketing.

“The reality is that we got more scholarships,” said Kline, another student who said the atmosphere or community at Grace was the compelling reason she chose to come and live in a dorm. Room and board account for an additional $7,670.

Grout said that this is a more complicated issue than it seems. While the Grace grants were cut slightly, there is still a raft of financial aid available to undergraduate students, 43 percent of whom receive Pell grants, the federal financial program for low-income students.

“We get middle-income families who want high-quality excellence. We are not an affluent person’s campus,” Grout said. About 60 percent of Grace families earn less than $80,000 a year, he added.

The average financial package for students comes to $15,000, but can be a wide range of federal and Grace money, including loans which have to be paid back. Grace itself has many scholarships including presidential, merit, athletic, diversity, clergy children,and departmental awards.

“The Grace grant is only a slice of a whole pie,” Grout said. “There are eight different pieces.”

Offering the tuition reduction, the free textbook rental and myriad grants does not mean that salaries have been lowered or other cuts have been made on campus, Grout said.

“We don’t build expensive dorms. We build dorms that are effective,” he said. While some dorm rooms can cost up to $60,000, Grace’s cost $30,000, he added. In the past two years, the college has built two new dorms to accommodate a rising enrollment. In 2011, there were 346 new students, 2012, 407; 2013, 442 and this year, 503.

“I’m very happy,” Kline said. “They’re making it more affordable. When they presented it originally, that’s how they phrased it so we would see it positively.”

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