St. John's College officials had grown weary of an ongoing problem among higher education institutions nationwide, including their own: Tuition prices were soaring to heights out of reach for many Americans with no signs they would head back down.
So around 2017, they hatched a plan to stop that trend. They would slash the small liberal arts school's sticker price — which had ballooned to $51,200 — by 33%, bringing annual tuition down to $35,000 starting in the 2019-20 academic year.
To make up the difference, the college is switching to a philanthropy-supported model financed by a $300 million campaign and reducing administrative spending.
"Our capital campaign is built around two things: continuing to provide this incredible education exactly the way we've provided it for a very long time and (making) it affordable for anybody who really wants it, regardless of their need," said Mark Roosevelt, the collegewide and Santa Fe campus president. "That's it — no new programs, no new buildings. And that's really unusual."
The college has racked up some early wins. It locked down more than $200 million in donations and is on track to eliminate its deficit by 2021.
Prospective students appear to be responding to the change. St. John's saw a record number of applications this year with more than 800 undergraduates enrolled across its two campuses in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
St. John's didn't make these changes lightly. The three-century-old institution is one of just a few U.S. colleges that can trace its origins to when the country was under British control.
That longevity has given St. John's time to carve out its niche.
For one, it's an institution steeped in American history. Four of the college's founders signed the Declaration of Independence and alumnus Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner." (Mark Roosevelt is the great-grandson of former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.)
Its curriculum, in place since the 1930s, is known for focusing on "great books" in the Western canon. (St. John's has caught flak for including relatively few women or nonwhite authors in this required program, though upper-level students can study other works in elective-style courses.)
There are no online classes, amenity-rich dorms or even majors. Instead, students spend the bulk of their time studying and discussing works written by the likes of Plato, William Shakespeare and Alexander Hamilton.
The college's focus helps officials distinguish between urgent challenges that require them to make changes and passing trends they can ignore. "The radical thing about St. John's is we won't change much," Roosevelt said. "It's a profound advantage of knowing exactly who we are."
Yet after the Great Recession, it was one of many liberal arts colleges bleeding tuition revenue as the competition for students heated up. Officials chalked up the decline to two factors: increases in the college's need-based aid for low-income students and merit-based aid for top applicants.
That mirrors nationwide trends. In the 2018-19 academic year, tuition discounting reached an all-time high of about 52% for first-time, full-time freshmen at private nonprofit institutions, according to a recent survey from the National Association of College and University Business Officers.
Many colleges are turning to donors to cover a larger share of their costs, but few have been as vocal as St. John's about the need for spending cuts. Officials have eliminated some 40 positions and centralized administrative functions such as human resources and enrollment.
Those efforts have also enabled St. John's to use all of the funds it is raising now to grow its endowment and make improvements to campus, rather than shrinking the budget shortfall. "There's nothing less inspiring than asking a donor to contribute to a deficit, right?" Roosevelt said.
It remains to be seen whether the tuition reset and capital campaign will deliver its hoped-for changes, but if history is any guide, St. John's has staying power.
"That lean-and-mean ethos has served us well," said Panayiotis Kanelos, president of the Annapolis campus. "When we've veered from that in the past ... it's hurt us. So we've recommitted back to that over the past few years to make sure that we're true to that particular element of who we are."