Affordability is the way to fix higher ed, says Otterbein president

Katy Smith
Otterbein University President John Comerford

John Comerford tells it like it is: Higher education lacks transparency when it comes to pricing. Lofty sticker prices and magazine rankings impress wealthy families looking for prestigious placements, while these same students enjoy discounts thanks to merit-based financial aid that more often than not benefits students whose families can comfortably pay more. Then there are FAFSAs and EFCs and OCOGs and Pells—the system is confusing to families, and it keeps some students who think they can’t afford it from applying. How does that advance the American Dream? Comerford would like to know.

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If you were, say, sitting next to Comerford on a train, or gravitated to the same corner as him at a cocktail party, you’d be lucky. He’s fun to talk to—handsome and engaging, with an uncanny way of coming off as simultaneously Uber-educated and down to earth. His suit is meticulously pressed, his posture is impeccable, his sentences are crisply enunciated—and you can only imagine they’d be perfectly spelled and punctuated, too—yet his aura is accessible, relatable. You feel he cares about the same things you do, maybe he’s even just like you (if you’re a white Midwesterner)—except he’s a university president. And he will talk your ear off about the broken business model in American higher education, though you won’t notice the time passing while he boils it all down.

To hear the way Comerford lobs criticism at universities, you’d never guess he runs one. He’s run two of them, actually. The 42-year-old president of Otterbein University came to Westerville in 2018 after five years at the helm of Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois, about halfway between Springfield and St. Louis. He grew up in Wisconsin and Illinois, the son of two college professors he was ready to get away from, like any young person, by the time he was ready to go to college himself at Western Illinois University.

Affordability and accessibility in higher education, as you probably have guessed, is Comerford’s big issue, and he’s done a lot more than talk about it at both Blackburn and Otterbein. At Blackburn, which is a so-called “work college,” where students work on campus for several hours a week, Comerford created a program to meet the full financial need of all its incoming students, two-thirds of whom are eligible for federal Pell grants reserved for the neediest students. And at Otterbein, he introduced the Opportunity Scholarship to cover tuition for Pell-eligible Ohio students after federal and state aid, grants and other scholarships, a program similar to one at Ohio State University.

In his campaign to make postsecondary education affordable and welcoming for first-generation students, Comerford also has championed diversity, increasing the number of students of color at 550-student Blackburn from 12 percent to 24 percent over four years. Otterbein’s trustees knew they were getting a president whose first order of business was caring about students—all of them, and perhaps especially the ones who weren’t there yet—when they chose Comerford from a national field of 80 applicants in 2018. Before he accepted the position, Comerford says they talked at length about the desire to make the private, 2,800-student university more accessible. Indeed, it’s a priority for donors, too: During Otterbein’s recently completed $50 million fundraising campaign, the majority of donors chose to fund new scholarships.

Otterbein, where 31 percent of students receive Pell grants, was a good fit for Comerford, too. So much so that he moved with his wife and three children from Illinois to Westerville.

“I got lucky and attracted to Otterbein because this place from its founding has had an ethos of doing the right thing before it’s popular,” he says. “We were the first college founded co-ed in the country. We educated African Americans before the Civil War. We had women on the faculty from the beginning. We educated Japanese Americans during WW II when they were otherwise being put in internment camps. This is a place that has consistently over its history done the right thing before it’s popular. And that’s the reason I’m here. I wouldn’t have come to a school that didn’t want to follow a strategy that was going to be different and better for our society and for our own business.”

Giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to go to college is a noble pursuit, and no doubt that’s what motivated Comerford to become a university president in the first place. But there’s also a compelling business case for doing so. As Comerford wrote in a May 26 op-ed in the Columbus Dispatch, as institutions of higher education looked ahead to a fall semester potentially without students on campus:

“Higher education’s teetering business model is now in pieces on the floor, broken beyond repair. A few institutions with billion-dollar endowments might plow ahead unfazed, but most must now face market realities,” Comerford wrote. “That means putting access and affordability first, which especially benefits traditional underserved groups of students. There will not be enough students to go around who meet the ideals of magazine rankings (high test scores, high ability to pay), so campuses will inevitably become more authentically inclusive and diverse. The democratization of learning will be a change worth celebrating.”

Otterbein has the financial flexibility to deal with the pain from the Covid-19 crisis, Comerford says. But that doesn’t mean it can ignore the market demand to shift how it does business. Demographics tell part of the story: The number of 18-year-olds in Ohio and surrounding states is declining. In fact, by 2025, it’s forecast that there will be a significant—albeit only lasting a handful of years—drop in college enrollments because people all over the world stopped having babies in response to the Great Recession in 2008.

By chasing students from higher-income backgrounds—the ones who typically have higher high school class ranks and test scores, which lift institutional rankings—“we are exacerbating the gap between the haves and have nots in our society,” Comerford says. “This is supposed to be a place where your own hard work, not your family’s income, determines your ability to be successful in the United States of America. And we have created a system of higher education that does the exact opposite.”

As important, he thinks in an environment of shrinking freshman classes, catering to students from well-off families is a bad business model, “because those students are being sought by lots of schools, and those students have come to expect a lot of amenities,” he says. “They expect apartments, climbing walls and a Starbucks in every building, and all of those amenities cost money. So you have a declining revenue per student and an increasing cost of operating your campus. That is a failed business model that I’m afraid many four-year colleges now have.”

So how does Otterbein, which has a sticker price of about $48,000 a year in tuition and residence hall expenses, ensure its own future? Buck that trend and appeal to students from lower-income families with generous financial aid packages, “signaling to students that this leafy, green, beautiful, ivy-covered private college campus is for you,” he says.

Elbow-bumping Arnold

Otterbein’s had some interesting visitors since Comerford became president. It hosted the fourth Democratic presidential debate last October, a reflection of the political shift in Westerville, where Barack Obama lost by nearly double digits in 2008 and 2012, but Hillary Clinton won by four points in 2016.

Sunday, March 8, when the university hosted a climate change symposium in its Rike Center for sporting events, Comerford found himself elbow-bumping with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the coronavirus pandemic knocked at Ohio’s door. One thousand people attended the town hall event put on by former Secretary of State John Kerry’s nonprofit, World War Zero, that also featured Schwarzenegger, Kerry and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who lives in Westerville and gives regular CNN updates from an office on campus.

That week was pivotal. Comerford found himself that Tuesday on a call with Gov. Mike DeWine and his health director, Dr. Amy Acton, someone whose name was not familiar at the time. They told him and the other leaders on the call they had to shut down campus and finish the semester online to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

That Herculean task was accomplished inside of a week. “Covid is forcing innovation to happen quicker than it would have,” Comerford told me May 22 as plans for a return to campus in the fall were being announced. “But the downsides outweigh the upsides pretty significantly, especially in the short term. If we have another surge in cases, and August arrives, and we really do have to stay online for longer, or we can’t have students in residence halls, that is financially catastrophic.

“I will say, and not all in a bad way—this has been the longest academic year of my career. I think about the debate. That was just seven months ago. It feels like seven years ago. It’s crazy.”

Higher education’s a lot like retail

Disruption is happening in higher education, but not dramatically, says Adam Weinberg, president of Denison University in Granville, which enjoys an $880 million endowment, more than eight times the size of Otterbein’s. Weinberg says affordability is a priority for the school, where 21 percent of students receive Pell grants. “There are more and more families and individuals struggling to find the financial resources to afford a college education, and I think this is forcing private colleges like Denison to do a better job meeting their financial aid needs.” In response, the school—where it costs $69,400 annually to live and study, but students end up paying about $37,000 after aid, according to the National Center for Education Statistics–has doubled the amount of financial aid it gives to low-income and middle-class families over the past four years, Weinberg says.

Finding new customers to serve—whether that’s international students, first-generation families or career-changing adults—is a priority at the state’s flagship public, four-year institution, too. The minds at Ohio State University are constantly “thinking about ways that we can open ourselves up to provide education that we never delivered before,” says Bruce McPheron, executive vice president and provost. “I think we’ve got real creative juices flowing here, and it’s thinking about that changing demographic at the heart of it.”

Ohio Dominican University, which was founded in the Dominican tradition of helping the less fortunate, relies on donors to help students—more than half of whom receive Pell grants—attend college there, says President Robert Gervasi. “We’re proud of the fact that our pricing is below average as compared with other independent colleges and universities,” he says. (The annual sticker price is about $46,000, and students pay about $20,000 after aid.) But we have to be very conscious that anything we do has to have value for the students. And that’s why we have a very active regimen of feedback loops. We do a lot of surveys of students and faculty and staff, just to ensure that students feel like they’re getting value for their time as well as that on-campus experience.”

Surveying customers on value—like they do in the retail world, which unabashedly lives and dies by consumer sentiment.

“The whole fact that nobody pays sticker prices [in higher education] is really analogous to the fact that department stores eventually got into this mode of ‘always on sale,’ ” says Bill Faust, senior partner and chief strategy officer at Columbus branding firm Ologie, which has deep experience in the higher education market across the country. “It’s really no different. It’s the same problem, just manifested in a different way.

“If you look at banking, and if you look at retail, and if you look at categories that have had to evolve [with higher education really being one of the last], the thread that ties it all together is that they went from being company-driven, or in the case of higher ed, institutionally driven, to being more customer-driven,” Faust says.

Like Comerford and his lively Twitter interactions with students—joking about 2 a.m. donut runs, virtually high-fiving a student for being in the New York Times, admitting he had to “pick my jaw up off the floor” the first time he saw an Otterbein student theater performance, which he anticipated would be good, but not amazing—to survive, colleges and universities are going to have to meet students on their own turf as we head into the next century of higher education.

Katy Smith is editor of Columbus CEO.

Otterbein has the financial flexibility to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, but that doesn't mean it can ignore the market demand to shift how it does business, says Otterbein President John Comerford.