Alaska Pacific University plans to cut the cost of undergraduate tuition by 34 percent, bucking a national trend of rising college costs in a bid to attract more young students to its Anchorage campus.
Starting in the fall of 2014 tuition will cost $19,500 per year, down from $29,700.
The university's board of trustees made the decision to drop prices last week after three months of discussion.
An Outside consultant who studied the university had earlier suggested that prospective students were being deterred by "sticker shock" from the published tuition price and not even bothering to find out about financial aid, said university president Don Bantz.
"(Potential students) were looking at the price tag and not even giving it a chance," Bantz said.
The new tuition price of $19,500 makes the cost of a degree from APU more competitive with big, West Coast public schools such as the University of Oregon and University of Washington, he said.
Not many private liberal arts colleges are cutting tuition costs.
"It's pretty unusual," said Paul Lingenfelter, the president of the Boulder, Colo.-based State Higher Education Executive Officers association.
On average, private liberal arts colleges increased tuition between 4-5 percent in 2012, according to the trade publication Inside Higher Ed.
Most colleges are sticking with the high up-front price tag model because some families can and will pay it, he said.
Cutting tuition dramatically is a "strategic move to try to increase enrollment," Lingenfelter said. "I think it's a reasonable strategy and maybe a very good idea."
Increasing enrollment is exactly what APU hopes to do. First-time undergraduates straight out of high school make up only about 150 of the university's roughly 600 undergraduate and graduate students.
"It's an increasingly small percentage," Bantz said.
In 2012, the incoming class of first-time freshman was only 28 students.
The rest of APU's population is made up of high school seniors in an early honors program, transfer or returning adult students finishing their degrees part-time and graduate students.
The traditional college students are most likely to live in student housing and contribute to a sense of campus life, Bantz said.
"They are the heart and soul of the campus," he said.
Bantz hopes that the lower tuition cost will help to recruit 50-100 more traditional undergraduates.
"We want to stay small," he said. "But we can grow modestly."
APU can afford to cut tuition because faculty and facilities can accommodate more students without an additional financial investment, he said. And APU makes "significant income" from leases and land investments in Anchorage. The university owns 175 acres and counts the U.S. Geological Survey, the Alaska Volcano Observatory, Alaska Spine Institute and Alaska Public Media as tenants.
"We've invested wisely in leases and buildings which we draw significant income from," Bantz said.
To sweeten the deal and increase retention, APU is also offering all undergraduates who come in under the new tuition deal a $3,000 travel scholarship when they reach junior status. That money can be used toward study abroad.
The decision to cut tuition isn't in line with what most other colleges are doing, Bantz said.
But APU, like Alaska, is offbeat in a lot of ways, he said.
Among them: A female giant Pacific octopus named Khaleefi lives in a tank on-campus. The only sport is the Olympic-caliber Nordic ski team. A regularly taught class is held on a glacier in the Talkeetna Mountains.
This year, members of the freshman class -- all of them -- will start their college experience with a two-week float trip down the Yukon River.
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By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS