Corey Jenkins/Spring Hill College
A small private college is turning to an unusual model in an attempt to grow enrollment and improve retention: free tuition for its graduate programs.
Starting in fall 2024, freshmen at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., who complete an undergraduate degree in four years with a 3.0 grade point average won’t have to pay tuition to attend one of the college’s master’s degree programs. (The opportunity will also become partially available to currently enrolled undergraduates, but those details are not solidified yet.)
“This is a multifaceted approach,” said Nathan Copeland, Spring Hill’s vice president of advancement and enrollment. “No doubt, we do believe this will help with our enrollment numbers. But there’s also two other things we really want to increase on our campus, and that’s retention and academic excellence.”
Making students aware that leaving Spring Hill means leaving behind a free graduate degree creates “some incentive to get students to stay,” he added. “Also, since there’s an incentive to graduate in four years, we think it can increase on-time graduation rates as well.”
Failed Tuition Reset
Spring Hill’s free graduate tuition strategy follows a tuition-reset program implemented two years ago, which reduced the annual sticker price by nearly half—from $41,868 to $21,100—and lowered the cost of room and board by $3,200. Officials had hoped those changes would improve the college’s competitiveness in the region and grow enrollment, which dropped from 1,501 students in 2018 to 963 in 2021, according to data from the college. Instead, 2022 marked the lowest head count in years—933 students—though the college has seen a slight bump in the number of freshmen enrolled, from 216 in 2021 to 242 in 2023.
Experts have long cautioned that tuition resets alone are not a cure for enrollment woes, especially if prospective students aren’t even aware of them. Copeland, who started his role overseeing enrollment in 2021, after the price drop went into effect, said a lack of awareness was one reason the reset didn’t attract more students to Spring Hill.
“They didn’t do any marketing,” he said, noting that some prospective students he meets still aren’t aware that Spring Hill cut its sticker price so drastically.
Over the past year, administrators considered other ways to make the college more attractive to prospective students—and Copeland saw an opportunity in graduate education.
The national numbers bear him out. During the COVID-19 pandemic, overall postsecondary enrollment dropped—but graduate enrollment rose (though it has been on the decline since 2022). Between 2011 and 2021, the number of U.S. residents holding master’s degrees rose by more than 50 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Copeland said talking to employers helped him envision the role Spring Hill could play. They mentioned two key things they wanted to see in graduates entering the workforce, he said.
“One is the ability to think critically. As a liberal arts institution that teaches students how to think, not what to think, we feel really strongly we’re checking that box,” he said. “The second thing is that in certain fields, advanced degrees are critical. A graduate degree is becoming the norm in the United States … We want to make sure we’re able to provide an opportunity for our students to jump into the workplace and feel like they have a leg up.”
Spring Hill’s graduates already have high postgraduation job-placement rates; 92 percent of 2021 graduates either got jobs or continued their education in graduate school, according to the college website.
“We’re already adding a lot of value; we believe [free graduate tuition] doubles down on that value,” Copeland said.
Before announcing the free graduate tuition program, college administrators did extensive financial modeling to make sure the program was sustainable: the sticker price for a graduate degree ranges from $380 to $540 per credit hour, depending on the degree program.
Through the financial modeling process, the college determined that it has enough money coming in from net tuition revenues to afford to offer free graduate tuition, said Patricia Kane, chair of the college’s Board of Trustees. And if the promise of free graduate school attracts more undergraduates in the coming years, “it will also be a tool to increase our net tuition revenue,” Kane said.
Rebecca Cantor, the provost, recognizes that many small colleges like Spring Hill are grappling with the looming enrollment cliff. And while she doesn’t expect the college to recruit thousands more students, she believes the free graduate tuition program will help set the college apart in an increasingly competitive market.
“We need some exciting ideas,” she said. “We’ve got to do things a little different, shake things up and find ways to connect with our students. We’re hopeful this will be something that puts us on the map and helps people find us.”
Copeland, who has redirected the college’s recruitment strategy to focus on students in the Southeast and parts of the Midwest, said he’s working to get the message out about both Spring Hill’s lower sticker price and now its tuition-free graduate program.
“It will be very widely known that Spring Hill College offers extra value,” he said, “and the graduate program is part of that.”
On a recruitment trip to Dallas last week, he saw anecdotal evidence that the promise of free graduate school is already garnering interest. Before the college issued a press release about the program, 15 students were signed up to attend the outreach event; after word got out, 45 students had signed up.
Currently, the college offers master’s degree programs in theology, business administration, public health and nursing, which are all available online. In an effort to appeal to even more students, officials plan to add a master’s in applied humanities by next year and one in exercise science and kinesiology in the near future.
Unlike tuition resets—which dozens of schools have implemented over the past decade—Spring Hill’s free graduate degree program is relatively novel.
At least one other college—High Point University in North Carolina—started offering incoming freshmen the opportunity to earn a free master’s in communication and business leadership in 2020. The university is also piloting a program that unlocks free tuition for several other master’s degrees for students who applied through early decision.
But High Point doesn’t have the same enrollment worries as Spring Hill; the head count has risen every year since 2006. Though its graduate student enrollment has grown by more than 300 students since 2019, adding tuition-free graduate degrees was less about enrollment and more a response to the pandemic’s disruption of the student experience, said Kerr Ramsay III, senior vice president for enrollment.
“It was something we could do,” Ramsay said. “We know how much more employable people are with graduate degrees and how quickly jobs were bouncing back for people with graduate degrees. The pandemic was a great reminder about how unpredictable life in the world can be. It was a great opportunity to make our graduates more recession-proof.”
It will be several years before Spring Hill, which currently has 127 graduate students enrolled, knows how effective the free graduate tuition program is in boosting recruitment and retention. But for now, the plan has some enrollment experts intrigued.
“It’s pretty clever,” said Madeleine Rhyneer, vice president of consulting services and dean of enrollment management at EAB (formerly the Education Advisory Board). “Many of their programs are online-only. There’s a fixed cost for those programs, and adding additional students doesn’t really add to the cost structure.”
While she said she can envision the program potentially driving up first-year enrollments, she wonders if the college will consider allowing transfer students access to the full benefit.
“When you think about the macro environment we’re operating in—fewer students and fewer students choosing to go to college—more flexibility might be your friend,” Rhyneer said. “Two years of tuition revenue is better than zero.”
From a psychological standpoint, Spring Hill’s plan to offer free graduate tuition to freshmen—even if they would have qualified for a graduate scholarship later—could be effective because “you’re offering someone a $40,000 scholarship right out of the gate,” said Jeremiah Nelson, assistant professor of management at Catawba College in North Carolina.
The lingering question with that model, however, is “how many of their students enter the door wanting a master’s degree?” Nelson said. “Because if you’re offering something they don’t value, then it doesn’t matter.”
Daniel Hadley, a Spring Hill senior majoring in business administration with a concentration in computer information systems, definitely sees the value of continuing on to graduate school.
When he first started college, he didn’t think much about getting a graduate degree. But now that graduation is approaching, he says he’s considering pursuing an M.B.A. to give himself an advantage in the job market. He’d already been looking at programs at other institutions when Spring Hill announced the free graduate tuition program.
While the full benefit is only available beginning with next year’s freshman class, Hadley likes the possibility of getting a portion of the program’s cost reduced, because it would allow him both to “continue being a part of the Spring Hill community and also get a really good graduate degree at a discounted rate,” he said.