Willamette University in Salem, Ore., has been a part of Steve Thorsett’s life since he was a kid, long before he became an astrophysicist and long before he entertained thoughts of returning to become its president.
His father was a longtime faculty member at the institution, which is known for being the oldest university in the Western U.S. and also pegged as one of the finer private liberal arts colleges in the nation. But Thorsett says Willamette is far more complex and far more robust than that.
“My thinking about Willamette has changed a lot in 10 years,” says Thorsett, who previously served as professor and dean at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “I came back to it, really thinking of it in a way that it was thinking of itself a decade ago – as a national liberal arts college that happened to house a couple of really strong graduate schools. It was only gradually over the first few years I was here that I really came to understand that being a medium-sized university and using that complexity in different ways gave us an opportunity to be something that was different from sort of the national standard classifications.”
So this 180-year-old “liberal arts college”, with its law school and its management school, has been trying to shed that staid image by letting higher education know it is a nimble, 21st century-focused university with a ton of bells and whistles.
Willamette is close to completing merger agreements with the Pacific Northwest College of Art and the esteemed Claremont School of Theology. It has been increasing efforts to expand access to create a more diverse, inclusive campus. And all of that to go with an elite undergraduate liberal arts education.
One of the most eye-opening moves Willamette has made to evolve was recently announcing the lowering of its base tuition by nearly 20% or $10,000, the first highly selective private university in the West to do that.
Thorsett says simply, “Price shouldn’t be equated with prestige.”
Defining a university
Willamette University’s ranking among liberal arts colleges on the U.S. News & World Report’s annual list has become a sticking point for the institution. Not because of the others that have been chosen above it, but because Willamette sits squarely between the traditional definition of liberal arts and regional university categories. Back in the early 80s, the university opted for liberal arts status, which put it in among an elite group of colleges. Nice in theory, but that also meant a conscious choice to move tuition upward.
“Willamette made a very deliberate decision to bring ourselves into alignment with peer institutions,” he says. “I think the pressure started to define one way to be a successful liberal arts college: it pushed a lot of us toward a really standardized approach to pricing. We were all a common set of institutions that were positioned in the same way. It’s only in relatively recent years that institutions in the sort of top-tier group have been brave enough to step away from that, looking at more fundamental reasons to choose a different path on tuition – namely access and equity.”
Thorsett says, the problem with the old model is that it has unintended consequences.
“There are a lot of students who don’t understand that these institutions are accessible to them because of the choices we make with high-tuition, high-aid pricing,” Thorsett says. “There are lots of students who never even get into that conversation. Differentially, it hits the students who are at poorly funded public schools that don’t have adequate college counseling, or even upper-middle class students who don’t understand aid or how extensive need-based aid can be.”
He uses his Carleton College in Minnesota as an example. “You go to my alma mater’s pricing page at Carleton, and they’ve got several paragraphs pleading with students to apply, even if they think they can’t come.”
And that model can have further damaging effects for institutions trying to make pitches to prospective recruits.
“One of the unintended byproducts of high-priced, high-aid models is that we signal that we are a place of privilege, that we are built for wealthy students, by wealthy people, and that when we talk about access, we’re talking about bringing traditionally underrepresented students into this place of privilege,” he says. “And that is very much not what we’re trying to do. We want this to be an institution like it was founded 180 years ago – an institution that feels like a place that students from small-town rural Oregon, or students from public schools and big cities, can come and feel like this is their place. That this isn’t a country club sort of environment that they’re being tolerated in.”
Changes were coming to Willamette even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, though that has helped speed up its transformation.
A couple of years ago, officials started working on a deal that would help it merge with Southern California’s Claremont School of Theology and it moved its operations to Oregon this summer, working as an affiliated organization. That has allowed Willamette to add accreditation for its Ph.D. programs.
Its board then looked at further ways to meet regional needs, that Thorsett says, would bring in “pieces that could be interactive in really unique ways.” So began talks with the Pacific Northwest College of Art, an independent art design school in Portland.
“Especially as COVID start moving in, those conversations were accelerated,” Thorsett says. “And so we announced in September the merger of PNCA and Willamette, which we hope will be completed in January.”
That would bring in another 600 students to go with a powerful and expanding management program, which will be offering a major for the first time next year.
“If we complete both mergers this year, all of this would be happening during COVID, when nobody is on campus,” he says. “We’re doing things that seem really hard to do but are possible because of, in some ways, the COVID moment. It’s a really interesting opportunity to emerge from this very difficult year as a bigger and better institution.”
That expansion, the complexity of programs working together and the COVID moment ultimately led to the tuition reset.
“What made this the moment we felt like we could was this idea of functioning better as a university,” he says. “We had our design school and our professional schools, which were all priced about $10,000 lower. It became increasingly challenging as we tried to incentivize and ease the flow of students back and forth between the schools. Just making the university work better together called for a more coherent, university-level strategy on pricing.”
Now, Willamette hopes it is positioning itself for a new era and shedding its image as strictly a liberal arts college.
“If you go back to the early 20th century to the very first rankings that were actually done for the federal government, they haven’t changed that much in 100 years, because reputation is really sticky,” Thorsett says. “We’re trying to counter against this long set of beliefs about the institution. Even with the tuition reset other peer groups say it takes two years before people really understand that there’s been a change.”
Thorsett says it’s time for the system to evolve.
“The use of price to tell a story about what kind of institution we saw ourselves as was ultimately damaging,” he says. “The trouble with the ranking a generation ago was it was the only game in town, it was one set of metrics, which may not be the metrics that are important to the family. There are lots of different ways for people to get information about schools and pricing.”