Willamette University

The Evolving Market of Higher Education

College is a very different thing than it was 50 years ago.

As bodies of knowledge have grown, liberal arts institutions in particular have employed more professors to teach more subjects to each student; they also provide greater focus on each pupil, often using individual attention as a mode of differentiation in the marketplace, and rely on new technologies to support pedagogical innovation. Parents, increasingly engaged in their sons’ and daughters’ lives in college, demand more of the four-year experience than they ever have before.

These and many other changes have reshaped the way colleges execute their educational missions. Even as they have continued to tap into long-held traditions and values, institutions like Willamette have adapted to an evolving landscape in higher education.

But why, for example, has there been such an increase in cost in the last few decades? One answer is that students and parents — the consumers — expect and receive exponentially more than they did in the past.

Consider student services. Various academic support and student life programs — the vast majority of which are new since 1960 or even 1980 — have transformed the college experience; this is how it should be, we might say (and certainly students, the recipients of these services, would say), but it also means that each student at Willamette “costs” more to educate from the university’s perspective. In fact, tuition and fees, even at their current levels, do not cover the full cost of educating a student today; endowment spending and charitable contributions in the form of annual giving and restricted private gifts, among other things, fill the holes each year.

Students and parents expect and receive exponentially more than they did in the past.

Willamette’s fiscal stance is certainly not unique. In the field of similar liberal arts peer institutions — Lewis & Clark, Whitman, University of Puget Sound, and others — Willamette sits in the middle in terms of overall cost and average yearly tuition increases. It awards more money in the form of scholarships than most do (and, crucially, Willamette students seldom have to stay and pay for a fifth or sixth year, unlike many of their peers). This does not mean that cost increases are to be taken lightly “because everyone else is doing it,” but it does mean that Willamette today is operating within a new operational paradigm.

Additionally, proliferating government requirements, from building codes to accounting rules, have also affected how Willamette does business. This isn’t to say that governmental intervention is necessarily bad: Title IX, which in 1972 bolstered the inclusion of women in education and especially athletics, is a great example of prudent and beneficial regulation. But maintaining compliance and good working relationships with regulating authorities, as Willamette always has done, can involve substantial administrative costs, often in the form of staff time and additional positions.

The bottom line (to use an apt cliché) is that education in the United States is an enormous project that responds to unique and evolving market forces. Whereas Willamette in earlier decades ran on a simpler infrastructure and maintained a modest operating budget, the institution now provides a multi-faceted educational experience to extremely savvy and engaged consumers — a necessity if we are to continue to compete successfully in the world of private higher education.

Tuition Freedom Day

In 2008, the development office began a yearly campus program to educate students about the varied sources of funding — in addition to their tuition — that facilitate the academic, co-curricular and residential portions of their education.

Tuition Freedom Day figuratively commemorates the point at which tuition revenue ends (it pays around two-thirds of the actual yearly cost of education) and these other revenue sources take over.

By the numbers

Number of academic programs (College of Liberal Arts)

1959-60 2009-10


Full-time faculty (College of Liberal Arts)



University operating budget (millions)



Endowment (millions)

April 1958

December 2009

Student/faculty ratio



Figures above are approximations for the sake of comparison.


By Arnie Yasinski, Vice President of Financial Affairs and Treasurer


Students at Tuition Freedom Day write notes of thanks to donors.


Each year, many students also have the chance to meet the donors behind their scholorships in person.