How to Make an IC Education More Affordable

Every year, the Office of Student Financial Services at Ithaca College receives tens of thousands of phone calls, emails, and letters about financial aid from prospective students and their parents. Some families only need just a bit more aid to cover the cost of attendance. Then there are the families who need to bridge as much as a five-figure financial gap in order to afford an IC education. For Lisa Hoskey, director of student financial services, the situation is heartbreaking.

“You can look at this student and know that academically they’re a great fit and that their life would literally be changed if they came here, but there’s not really a way for us to make up that full difference,” says Hoskey. “They end up borrowing more or not coming.”

Because of the changing demographics of high school graduates and the ever-growing overall cost to educate students, that situation could become increasingly common in the next decade and beyond. For a tuition-dependent institution like IC, the challenge is clear: continue to provide a high-quality, student-centered education while becoming more affordable.

The Affordability Gap

The first of two challenging trends facing higher education in the United States is affordability. It’s no secret that a college education is expensive for institutions to deliver and expensive for families to pay for as well. Decades ago, students could work their way through college with a part-time job. But with costs now nearing the $60,000 mark, that option is no longer realistic. In the past 20 years, the average tuition of a private, four-year college rose 129 percent, from $15,160 to $34,740. IC’s tuition for the 2018–19 academic year is $43,978. Adding in room and board, the cost rises to $59,540.

Tuition prices are high because running a college—especially a residential, highly student-centered college—is expensive, and it has grown even more so in recent decades. Ithaca College, for example, has a planned operating budget of $235 million for 2018–19. Colleges devote more resources to educating students today than they did even 20 years ago. In order to remain competitive, they must offer access to modern, highly specialized facilities, training, and technology, reflecting the ever-advancing nature of academia. In addition, colleges offer a far more complex network of support that complements students’ academic development, including health, wellness, career training, extracurricular pursuits and volunteering, residential programming, and more.

Financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the websites and, says that federal and state grants to students have failed to keep up with the growing cost of tuition. “It shifts the cost of college from the government to the families, and family income has been relatively flat since 2000,” says Kantrowitz.

This gap makes it difficult for students, even those from the middle class, to attend college. And if they do choose to attend college, they often take on a heavy debt burden. At IC, 67 percent of students take out federal loans, and the median federal student loan debt of an IC graduate is $25,750. Twenty-three percent of students take out additional private loans.

Nationally, student loan debt is currently around $1.5 trillion—more than credit card or auto loan debt— and Kantrowitz predicts it will hit $2 trillion by 2022. This has many students and their families questioning how they value a college education. Kantrowitz says this dilemma has helped to spark a trend away from private colleges and toward public universities and community colleges.

“In most cases we will not match the net cost of a SUNY school, and that’s not really our goal,” says Gerard Turbide, vice president of enrollment management. “A private college like IC offers different opportunities. We know many students who are considering Ithaca College are also considering SUNY institutions. When they choose Ithaca College, they’re choosing us for reasons beyond cost.”

For students, the pros of a high quality education have to outweigh the con of a high sticker price. “The question for prospective students is ‘where do I go and how do I value institutions where I’m going to pay in some cases drastically different prices for a degree?’” says Jeff Selingo ’95, an expert on higher education and current member of the Ithaca College Board of Trustees.

For those students who choose to pursue a pricey degree, Selingo notes that debt has real costs beyond their checkbooks. “In my work, I’ve found that the more loans somebody takes out, the more difficult it becomes— especially in those first couple of years out of college—to really take the jobs that you want to take.”

Changing Demographics

The second challenging trend is a shift in the demographics of incoming college students.

Most notably, the number of high school graduates is decreasing in the United States overall, and that decrease is being felt particularly strongly in the Northeast. A professor of social sciences at Carleton College and author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, Nathan D. Grawe recently told Inside Higher Ed that the college-age population in the Northeast and Midwest United States could fall 5–15 percent by the mid-2020s.

For IC, which draws most of its students from the Northeast, this will pose a challenge as competition between schools for a decreasing number of potential students becomes fiercer. One advantage is that New York, where 45.5 percent of IC students come from, will not be as hard hit as other northeastern states. From 2018 to 2031, the number of annual high school graduates in New York will fall by only 2.4 percent, compared to 7.1 percent in the Northeast overall, according to a report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

However, decreasing numbers tell only part of the story. The ethnic and socioeconomic composition of high school graduates is changing as well. The Northeast, as well as the country, is becoming less white and more Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander.

“These are students who higher education hasn’t historically served well, whether it has not given them access to a college education or has not done a great job with student success—retaining them and getting them to graduation,” says Selingo.

In the Northeast, the number of white high school graduates will fall by 17.6 percent by 2031, while the number of Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander graduates will increase by 22.4 and 28.4 percent, respectively. In 2017, IC’s student population was 72.9 percent white and 21.2 percent ALANA (African American, Latinx, Asian, and Native American). By 2031, Northeast high school graduates will be 48.3 percent white and 41.3 percent ALANA.

“Changing demographics is something that we’re constantly thinking about,” says Janet Williams, IC’s interim vice president of finance and administration. “It has to do with our culture and how we prepare to become a student-ready college that meets the diverse needs of our students.”

Furthermore, future college students in the Northeast are statistically more likely to come from low-income families and be the first in their families to attend a four-year college , which means they are less familiar with the structures, processes, and culture of higher education than their peers. “You’re really navigating a whole new world. Simple things like ‘How do I register for classes?’ become a very big deal,” says Hoskey. “You’re struggling to figure all this out while still trying to do well in your classes, and you’re wondering how the heck you’re going to pay your bill next semester. I don’t know how you could put more pressure on a student.” In order to fully serve these students, IC must administer changes, and that will have a budgetary impact.

“Most institutions in the United States were shaped around meeting the needs of a college-going population that was primarily from the middle or upper economic classes. Today, the majority of our country’s college-age population has a far more diverse set of backgrounds, experiences, and needs,” says Chris Biehn, vice president of college relations and advancement. “Institutions won’t succeed if they can't respond to this shift. The best institutions will embrace the change head-on and make sure they’re ready for tomorrow’s students. For the future, we will need more financial aid resources to ensure that all talented students, of all economic backgrounds, can take advantage of the IC educational experience.”

Responding to Change 

IC is already taking a number of steps to address the challenges of affordability and demographic shifts.

On the cost front, the college is working smarter and more efficiently to keep budgets in line. One method of doing this is strategic sourcing. For example, the college may prepurchase larger amounts of gasoline when prices are low. IC has also recently refinanced its debt to a lower interest rate and embraced alternative revenue streams by hosting conferences and athletic events.

These and other efforts have allowed IC to keep its tuition increases in check. Because around 93 percent of IC’s total revenue comes from student expenses such as tuition and room and board, the college’s yearly budget is tied very closely to annual changes in these expenses for students. As a result of cost-saving efforts, IC has lowered the rate of its tuition increases each year for the past decade. In the last five years, the tuition rate increase has averaged 2.9 percent annually. In 2017–18, it was 2.45 percent. For comparison, the nation’s top 50 private colleges, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report, raised their tuition by an average of 3.6 percent for the 2017– 18 academic year.

“Ithaca College dedicates a tremendous amount of its budget to financial aid, and every year we reaffirm our commitment to keeping the tuition increases as low as possible,” says IC’s president, Shirley M. Collado. “We believe in the quality and the strength of an IC experience, and we are deeply invested in providing it to students, regardless of their financial situation. But we cannot do this alone. The ongoing generosity of our IC community— our alumni, family, faculty, staff, and philanthropic foundations and organizations—is absolutely critical. When all of us work together, we not only expand the availability of an IC experience; we transform the lives of students and their families.”

IC is also making changes to improve the student experience and success among those historically underserved in higher education.

“We’re asking some thoughtful questions right now about the student experience and how we can build dreams in an environment where our institution has both financial sustainability and the capacity to meet the financial need of every one of our students,” says Collado. “When we have these conversations and ask these questions, the importance of maintaining and enriching a robust culture of philanthropy becomes clear. Philanthropy and financial aid are wedded to student success, full participation, and the ongoing success of our institution.”

One way the college currently works to foster the success of historically underserved students is via the Office of State Grants. Through programs like the state-funded Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) and the New York State Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP), the Office of State Grants provides a broad range of support services to prospective and eligible New York State residents who, because of academic and economic circumstances, would otherwise be unable to attend IC. The college receives funding for 60 students to participate in each program.

HEOP also helps first-generation college students who may not have the same cultural capital and knowledge of higher education as other students.

Clarissa Guzman ’18, a first-generation public and community health major who is in the HEOP and CSTEP programs, says the support she received was crucial to successfully navigate college life when she began at IC.

“Being first generation, I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Guzman. “My counselor helped me out a lot in terms of preparing for homework assignments or time management, things that I was going to struggle with.”

The Case For Philanthropy 

While these programs and cost-control measures have a real impact, affordability still remains an issue. How, then, can IC continue to provide a quality, comprehensive education and do so at a price that families can pay?

“To me, the only way you’re really going to fill that [cost] gap is through increased philanthropy,” says Selingo. “[Colleges should be] looking not only for donations from alumni and friends but also from philanthropic organizations and foundations around the world.”

IC has a long history of philanthropy. Many of the buildings on campus, like the Dorothy D. and Roy H. Park Center for Business and Sustainable Enterprise and the Athletics and Events Center, were built with the financial support of donors. Beyond buildings, philanthropy funds academic programs and scholarships for many students, and the IC Annual Fund helps support a wide range of events and assistance, including guest lectures, student organizations, and financial aid.

Perhaps the most important philanthropic component is the college’s endowment, an investment designed to support the institution in perpetuity. IC’s endowment reached $300 million in fiscal year 2017, or roughly $45,000 per student. This is lower than many of IC’s peer institutions (where the average endowment is $70,000 per student) and affects the college’s ability to provide scholarships to worthy and talented students.

Biehn explains that the larger the endowment is per student, the more the college can allocate to financial aid, making it less reliant on tuition and freeing up revenues to be spent in other areas, such as educational programs and faculty recruitment and retention. He would like to double the size of the endowment and eventually reach $1 billion.

In the college’s admission office, Turbide says staff don’t try to sell prospective students on the college; they try to give students the information they need to decide whether IC is the right fit for them. Part of that fit is financial. Turbide’s dream is to use philanthropic support to remove the financial aspect of the decision so that all students who see themselves and their futures at IC can afford to join the IC family. 

Meet the Donors

In the battle to keep an IC education accessible, donors are some of our greatest allies. A number of them benefitted from philanthropy themselves, so it’s important to them that they give back.

Sabrina Knight ’16 was active in a number of organizations during her time on campus. She was the news editor for The Ithacan, an assistant producer for Newswatch, a student leadership consultant in the Office of Student Engagement and Multicultural Affairs, a member of the Senior Class Gift Committee and senior class cabinet, a cochair for An Inside Look, and the list goes on.

Knight credits the variety of experiences she had as a student for shaping her current passions and successes. And that’s why, as a young alumna, she consistently makes gifts to support financial aid at IC.

“The reason I wanted to continue giving back is because I was very involved in student organizations,” she says. “All of those things were very important to me because they defined my college experience and contributed to my personal growth. I found myself during my time at Ithaca, and I want future students to have similar growth opportunities.”

Knight, who lives in Los Angeles and works as a digital marketing manager at an agency based outside Philadelphia, still engages with IC by serving on the college’s Young Alumni Committee and as the director of communications for ICUnity’s national executive board.

“Other young alumni think that being philanthropic just means making a financial donation, but there are other ways to support IC,” she says. “To me, the value of giving is about supporting the future of IC, supporting all the things that made me love IC as a student and also now as an alumna. It ensures that years from now I will be just as excited as I was my first day walking on campus, as fulfilled as I was on my graduation day, and as proud as I am now to say I’m an alumna.”

Many donors say they wouldn’t have been able to attend IC if they themselves hadn’t received financial aid.

Take Dave Lissy ’87, for example. The vice chair of the Ithaca College Board of Trustees was the first in his family to complete a four-year college degree. After serving as CEO for 17 years, he is now the executive chairman of the board at Bright Horizons Family Solutions, a global provider of employer-sponsored child care, early education, and work/ life solutions that is consistently ranked one of Fortune’s 100 best places to work, employing 33,000 people in six countries. He credits his IC education and experience with contributing to his success.

The generous financial aid package he received allowed him to attend IC and graduate with a business and economics degree. He also met his wife, Suzanne Schulman Lissy ’88, a fellow School of Business student at IC.

“I truly believe in this idea that I’ve had some good fortune in life, so it’s important to give back and pay it forward,” he says. “Part of the reason [Suzanne and I] give stems from our love of IC and the opportunity to help more students have access to an IC education.”

Dave and Suzanne created the Lissy Family Scholarship, and they also support the IC Annual Fund on a regular basis.

“Giving to the IC Annual Fund supports the operations of the college; we give to that because it’s important to the short-term success of the college,” he says. “And the endowed scholarship goes directly to student access and affordability.”

When Kathy Keltos Newlands ’89 and her husband, Bill, decided to endow a scholarship for students at IC, they reflected on Kathy’s own experience to help shape the parameters. Kathy, a School of Business student who also shone on the college’s track and field and cross country teams, received an academic scholarship herself. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to attend,” she recalls. “[The scholarship] was critical to my being there and my staying there.”

The Newlands Family Scholarship is awarded to students who demonstrate financial need and contribute to the college through extracurricular pursuits.

Kathy and Bill have lived all over the United States, but no matter where they’ve been based, they have made it a priority to engage with IC through fundraising, volunteering, or other philanthropic activities. “We’ve been fortunate,” she acknowledges, “and so this is our opportunity to help people go to a great school that they might not be able to go to without some help.”

When James Ragusa ’95 was scouting colleges, it was important for him to find a place where he could continue his football career.

“My parents weren’t in a position to send me, financially, but IC was affordable for me due to scholarships and financial aid, and I am forever grateful,” he says.

Ragusa joined IC’s football team and played all four years. “Some of the best relationships of my life were made at IC,” Ragusa says, “On the field, in the locker rooms—you’re with your peers, facing challenges and accomplishing goals together.” Today, those same locker rooms the team huddled in during the 1990s are undergoing a major renovation thanks to a significant gift from Ragusa and support from additional donors. “The college made an investment in me, so I want to give that opportunity to other students,” he says.

Ragusa gives back in many ways, donating to scholarships for students in financial distress, visiting campus to teach a class in the School of Business, and even endowing a scholarship in honor of his cousin who passed away before he could attend college. He encourages fellow alumni to engage with the college through any form of philanthropy.

“When I think of all the goodness that came out of my IC experience, I really feel it is imperative to give back,” Ragusa says. “We just have to get more alums to take that first step.”

As a scholarship recipient himself, David Sass ’57 knew early on that he wanted to give back to the college.

“I was interested in history, and in those days they were just starting the history department at IC. So I applied, and they gave me a scholarship,” he says. “My scholarship was very important to me; I needed it. I decided that, when I had the opportunity, I would give back in the form of scholarships.” 

To that end, Sass has endowed two IC scholarships that have helped more than 70 School of Business and history department scholars over the years.

He has also given back to the college as president of the IC Alumni Association and as vice chair of the Board of Trustees. Sass is also an IC parent, his daughter Diane having received her degree in 1983. “It’s important that, if you received a good education, you give back,” Sass reiterates. “Whether it’s financial, volunteering—it’s very important to give back.”

Scholarships can also help students gain professional experience in their chosen field, without having to worry about making additional money.

Karen Smith Simon ’95 found that her experience as an undergraduate at IC prepared her perfectly for University of California, Berkeley’s competitive master of public health program. Simon attended IC thanks to a merit-based scholarship along with work study. In addition to the two internships that were required by her health care administration major, she was also able to complete three additional internships in her field due to scholarships set up for that very purpose. Those crucial internships gave her an edge when applying to graduate school.

“I was able to go into an MPH program right out of undergrad, not only because of the relevant coursework I completed at IC but also because I already had so much work experience in my field,” she says. “Lots of 21- and 22-year olds don’t have that yet.”

Today, Karen and her husband, Eric Simon ’95, are giving back to IC by creating a similar scholarship, hoping to give students with demonstrated financial need the opportunity to acquire real-life work experience in their field of study. They also give regularly to the IC Annual Fund and serve on the Alumni Awards Committee.

“We were interested in giving but wanted to do something very specific,” she recalls. “The staff [at IC] helped us figure out a way to give meaningfully.” Recognizing that students are often interested in interning with smaller agencies that cannot provide financial support, the Simons established the Simon Family Scholarship. “Our goal is to find students who might be really passionate about health policy, for example, or sustainability, and who want to gain experience at an agency without that financial constraint.”

Long term, the Simons hope this strategy helps to train passionate leaders who want to make a difference. They stress that the word philanthropy shouldn’t be a deterrent from making a gift.

“Before we were in a position to help financially, Eric and I both had IC student interns come work for us to give them experience,” she says. “We started out making $50 gifts when we could. People might think there’s no point in making a gift if it isn’t a big gift, but small gifts can accomplish big things.”

Meet the Scholarship Recepients

Noella Mpinga ’20 

Jacob Ashcraft '19 

Tori Knapp '19

Alexander Stuart '20

Angela Di Francesco 16, DPT '18