The College Donor Digest

St. John’s College: Innovation in the Face of Crisis

December 13, 2019 | Rebecca Richards

The financial straits of small liberal arts colleges are well-known. Many schools are shutting down in the face of declining enrollment as students decline to take on large amounts of debt to pay high tuition prices, and Americans increasingly express dissatisfaction with higher education. Some colleges, however, are taking creative approaches to address these challenges, including St. John’s College, one of the nation’s oldest institutions with a steadfast commitment to upholding the liberal arts.

A small liberal arts college with campuses in Maryland and New Mexico, St. John’s recently moved to a philanthropy-based model of funding and cut its tuition significantly. Peter “Pano” Kanelos, president of the Annapolis, MD, campus, described the change, saying, “In most institutions, tuition is your major source of finances, and that is supplemented by philanthropy . . . but in this model, we’re making philanthropy the centerpiece of our finances, and tuition fits into that model.” A philanthropy-based financial model provides a rare but valuable opportunity for alumni and other donors to help guide the college’s future. Fortunately, St. John’s has a strong support base due to its unique academic program and its dedicated mission of developing students who are prepared for career and citizenship. 

In the 1930s, the college adopted a Socratic approach to teaching a Great Books core curriculum, offering small classes of 18 students facilitated by two “tutors.” The Great Books instruction model was a success, and the rigor of the academic program gave St. John’s College a prestigious reputation for the liberal arts. The curriculum has earned St. John’s an “A” grade in ACTA’s What Will They Learn? report for requiring at least six of seven core subjects, including Composition, Literature, (intermediate-level) Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science. This robust educational model is a key element in retaining alumni support, as graduates are eager to continue their support of the institution that played such a key role in their personal and career development. The model has also attracted the attention of donors who seek to direct their gifts toward colleges that are committed to providing a robust liberal arts education.

So far, the new financial model has garnered an encouraging response, and other colleges are seeking advice from St. John’s development team. The College sought alumni insight on how to proceed before transitioning to the model, a key cornerstone of its fundraising approach. While the College maintains its autonomy in providing its Great Books program, its eagerness and ability to interface with others who are invested in the College’s mission is worthy of emulation.

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