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‘Driving Change’ panel: ‘Lots of applause’ for the duo behind tuition cut

“To boldly go where no one else will go, if you will: That is courageous,” Avner said.

Marcia Avner calls LaMott and Vogel's tuition reset "a wonderful first step in reining in yearly out-of-control tuition hikes."
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

MinnPost has assembled a panel of leadership experts and scholars, who are rotating in commenting on each of the examples of leadership profiled in our series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership.” Today, consultant/educator Marcia Avner comments on aspects of leadership presented in “Behind Concordia’s bold tuition cut: ‘Maybe we can actually do something.’ “

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Marcia Avner

Marcia Avner has long seen the pressure that high tuition can place on students. In the Masters of Advocacy and Political Leadership program at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where she teaches, entering students carry, on average, $29,000 of debt from their undergraduate education.

It’s enough to discourage students from taking those next steps in life, such as starting families or having children. “Babies cost money,” she said.

So Avner is cheered by Concordia University’s decision to roll back its tuition – from the $29,700 it charged incoming freshmen this school year to the $19,700 it will charge incoming students next fall. Few colleges, private or public, have been bold enough to reduce their tuition by that much.

“To boldly go where no one else will go, if you will: That is courageous,” she said.

Concordia, a private Lutheran school in St. Paul, decided to drastically reduce its tuition after determining that too many students were dismissing the school as an option because of its price tag, even though financial aid reduces the actual cost for most students.

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Since the school announced the change in September, more than a dozen colleges have contacted Concordia to ask about its new policy. Two administrators who played key roles in pressing for the change – Kristin Vogel, director of undergraduate admission, and Eric LaMott, a vice president of administration – were profiled this month by MinnPost in its series on leadership.

“I would absolutely call on schools to get that tuition number down like Concordia did,” said Avner. “Private schools are a past the tipping point for some families. And even a public education isn’t affordable for some families these days.”

In Minnesota, Carleton College topped private schools with a tuition of $44,445 for this school year; tuition and fees at the University of Minnesota, meanwhile, totaled $13,524 this year.

“I would argue that there is a public interest component in this, too,” Avner added. “It’s not just for students and for Concordia. It’s really in our collective interest to have an education system that is accessible across the board.”

“If we don’t have a skilled and educated work force we will not be competitive. So we have got to deal with post-secondary education in a new way.”

Besides teaching in the University of Minnesota-Duluth program, Avner, of St. Paul, runs Avner Consulting and serves as a fellow at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. She has also worked in public policy and served in former Gov. Rudy Perpich’s administration.

From that perspective, she called Vogel and LaMott’s leadership “extraordinary.” The two led the push for the “tuition reset,” as the school is calling it, by looking closely at the school’s finances and enlisting the help of two outside consultants. The plan to came to fruition, Vogel and LaMott stressed, because of the solid backing of President Tom Ries and the school’s board of directors.

“I think it’s extraordinary,” Avner said. “This is a place where individuals came forward to make something possible.” She added: “To have someone bring an innovative and what was certainly a well-defined opportunity to the board of directors — and have the board willing to say, ‘Yep, there are always risks but we want to try this’ — is huge.”

Concordia is taking the tuition cut a step further by offering it to upperclassmen, as well. Moreover, room and board will also be frozen at this year’s level. But with the reduced cost will also come a reduction in financial aid, meaning the break for students might not be as significant as the price cut would suggest.

Still, Avner sees it as a wonderful first step in reining in yearly out-of-control tuition hikes.

“I give them lots of applause for this,” she said.