Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sheldon Jackson College—Transform or Close? (Part 4)

Dahlia of the day: Wicky Woo.

The high cost of tuition was a cause of Sheldon Jackson College’s failure.

It is expensive living in Alaska. Food has to be shipped in. The winters in Southeast Alaska are cool, wet and long—not terribly cold like up north. It costs $$$ to heat a house or a dorm room. These costs are to be expected when living in such a remote area! The beauty and setting of SJ more than offset the cost of room and board. Where can you go to school and see bald eagles almost every day? Where can you go to college and see humpback whales? Where can you go to college and have your outdoor laboratory just a few feet from the dorm? Where can you attend college and live in such beauty created by the Creator? Sheldon Jackson College the only place where you can do all of these things! As a student I hiked, camped, fished or used the student government’s boat most weekends. The expense of living in Alaska was well worth it!

High tuition is a totally different situation. Every college has some fixed costs and some variable costs related to its operations. For SJ, faculty related expenses were fixed costs. The college did not hire extra faculty members if classes were full. It cost the college the same amount of $$$ for a class that had five people in it and a class with 25 people in it.

What did the airline industry do when it faced the dark days (years) following 9/11? The airline had some fixed costs—they owed $$$ on those jets. It cost the airline approximate the same amount to fly a full jet from Seattle to New York as it did a half-full jet. So what did the airline industry do to fill those empty seats? They cut airline fares! How did Detroit get more Americans to buy their cars? They cut the cost of the cars (or, they gave huge rebates which is essentially the same thing.). What did SJ do to generate more income? They raised the cost of tuition!

The year I was hired as Chaplain at SJ was a record year for student numbers. In its infinite stupidity, the Board of Trustees voted to increase tuition by a significant amount. They must have figured that since students could be recruited at the lower $$$ figure that students could also be recruited at the higher $$$ figure. They were wrong! Attendance plunged the following year—and was never to rebound to prior numbers. Did the college recognize the drop of student numbers and then drop the tuition rate? Absolutely not!

The Admissions and Financial Aid Offices lobbied intensely for a tuition drop. Their pleas fell on deaf ears. Tuition remained high.

To put it bluntly… SJ priced itself right out of the market for their students. Students from rural Alaska could no longer afford to attend SJ. Students from the Lower 48 found it too expensive to attend college in Alaska.

The high cost of tuition helped kill Sheldon Jackson College.


At 9:02 PM , Blogger Hayduke said...

I'm sorry, though not at all surprised to learn that SJ finally closed its doors.

I worked at SJ from 1985 to 1987, and left when my position (Audio-Visual) was defunded and filled by a VIM. I worked on the Russian Bishop's House for the Park Service and at Raven Radio for a while, then moved on to Valdez at Prince William Sound Community College.

I went on to get a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

I'll always fondly remember my time at SJ. It was difficult, challenging and blessed with the best of faculty, staff and students.

Michael Lewis


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