06/30/2016 09:34 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2017

Making College (More) Affordable: One University's Moves To Put Inflation In Reverse

Let's agree that college affordability has become a hydra-headed monster. How do we count the ways? The seemingly inexorable rise in tuition. The rise in student loan default rates. The sheer weight of student debt. The vast differential in endowments among institutions. The limited reach of Pell grants and other forms of financial aid for students in need. The dearth of merit scholarships.

According to the College Board, average published tuition and fees at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities increased by 11 percent in 2015 dollars over the five years from 2010-11 to 2015-16, following a 14 percent increase between 2005-06 and 2010-11 (

Last March, a leading private university in Southern California announced its tuition for the 2016-2017 academic year will surpass $50,000 for the first time in its history, making it one of the most expensive universities in the nation and indicative of a growing trend: sticker shock at colleges just about everywhere. And private colleges are hardly alone: public schools are quietly hiking tuition at an even higher rate. What were once imminently affordable schools now place more of a financial strain on current students.

Against this backdrop, my institution -- Los Angeles-based Woodbury University, a diverse, 132 year-old liberal arts campus that focuses on business, architecture, design and a host of other creative disciplines - will raise undergraduate tuition just 3 percent. That's lower than the university's average annual increase of 4.5 percent over the past five years. At the same time, we have markedly increased institutional merit-based aid to qualified undergraduate students, by up to 33 percent. Our annual $20,000 Judith Tamkin Presidential Scholarships, for example, will be granted to five of our highest achieving academic students.

While one institution does not a trend make, Woodbury's experience in seeking to arrest runaway college costs is telling, even instructive. When coupled with our 4X Freshman Guarantee Program announced last year -- including "Graduation in Four Years" and "Full-Time Employment within Six Months of Graduation"-- plus a 2X Transfer Guarantee Program for students transferring from community colleges, the combination of cost control plus these first-in-the-state Guarantees provide a very attractive return on investment for our students.

So how do we arrest the rise in college costs in a systemic, sustaining way? In my view, affordability is intimately linked to vigorous, accountable governance. During a recent conference of the Association for Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, I joined Lawrence N. Hurwitz, Chair of the Woodbury Board of Trustees, to chart the future course of the institution. The conference's major themes -- optimizing Trustee engagement, creating a healthy Board culture, and a solid Board-President relationship - provided a fitting backdrop for that process.

Small, private non-profit liberal arts and professional colleges are under enormous pressure, from falling enrollment to questionable return on investment and the career readiness of graduates. These concerns must lead to closer working relationships between Presidents and their Boards of Trustees.
Our institution is a salient example. With its geographic location at the heart of the Southern California creative economy - amid such companies as Disney, Warner Brothers, NBC and Cartoon Network - our enrollment peaked in 2012 and is now roughly 1,400 students. The chair of our Board has called for "creative change leadership, " including a collective effort among faculty, staff and the Board on increasing enrollment, and a greater focus on engaged and informed Board governance.

Our Board of Trustees has already altered the dynamic between the Board and the Administration in a host of areas: heightened focus on revenues and expenditures; increased involvement in selecting the Administration leadership team; greater emphasis on brand and reputation; more meaningful metrics to track institutional performance; and tapping the expertise of Board members to help with special projects, such as facilities planning and bond funding.

The essence of Woodbury's improved Board governance is open discourse and assistance with solving both internal and external problems -- internal issues, such as understanding shared governance and curriculum innovation, and external matters, including Title V and Title IX compliance.
Responsive governance means addressing perhaps the biggest issue of all: ensuring that our university is within reach for those students who want to attend and who are capable of excelling academically and professionally. The degree to which we can do that will unlock solutions to the other challenges we - and so many institutions - face: attracting students, retaining faculty and staff, enriching the student experience, and ensuring for every stakeholder a respectable return on investment in private education.

David Steele-Figueredo is President of Woodbury University in Burbank, Calif.