MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From member station WPLN, Blake Farmer reports on the mountaintop college known as Sewanee.
BLAKE FARMER: The University of the South made waves in higher education when it announced a cut to its tuition.
CLAUDE PRESSNELL: There's no doubt when you have a leadership institution like Sewanee take a 10 percent cut, that it gets everybody's attention.
FARMER: Claude Pressnell is president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association. The national association for private schools says more than two dozen colleges have cut tuition in the last 15 years, but none had what it calls Sewanee's national prominence or financial resources. Since its founding, it's been natural resources that make the University of the South a standout among liberal arts schools.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)
KEN SMITH: As you can see on both sides of this we've got some pretty good streams flowing down the hill into the lost cove.
FARMER: Ken Smith is a professor in the forestry and geology department. He leads freshmen and sophomores down a trail in the school's 13,000 acres atop Monteagle, Tennessee, quizzing them on plant life.
SMITH: Unidentified Woman: Red cedar?
SMITH: Eastern red cedar.
FARMER: This institution may be deep in the woods, but its price tag is big city, $46,000 a year. Lee Ann Afton is the dean of admission and financial aid.
LEE ANN AFTON: I remember when, you know, we said, oh my gosh, we're over $30,000. And then the ceiling seemed to be $40,000. And now it's $50,000. And you think, that's a heck of a lot of money.
FARMER: But the price hasn't scared too many people away. A line of perspective students stretches down the mountain. This year, 3,000 applied and fewer than 500 got in. But more and more, the decision is coming down to Sewanee or a less expensive public university. Head to head, the school is losing more students to the University of Georgia than anywhere else.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
FARMER: Sewanee's campus quad could be confused with Harry Potter's Hogwarts: Stone buildings and stained glass reinforce the university's elite status. And for a long time, so has the high tuition. It's a phenomenon in higher education that bears the name of a fine Scotch whisky: the Chivas Regal effect - the more it costs, the better it must be.
JOHN MCCARDELL: Charge as much as you think you can get a family to pay and then discount that price by as much as you need to in order to attract the students you want.
FARMER: University president, John McCardell, has a long history with private colleges.
MCCARDELL: High tuition, high discount has been the order of the day for the last generation. It's not working anymore.
FARMER: How is it not working for you? Or you're saying it doesn't work out in the future, what do you mean?
MCCARDELL: Fewer and fewer families are willing to pay the sticker price. More and more families are trying to bargain for aid that has little relationship to need and everything to do with trying to play off one offer against another.
FARMER: McCardell says higher education shouldn't operate like a used car lot, but it does right now. At Sewanee, only 30 percent of students pay the sticker price. Catherine Carpenter of Dallas is one of them.
CATHERINE CARPENTER: It's expensive, but we get a great education.
FARMER: Many more students are like Clarke DeMars, sitting across the lunch table. He's from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After being offered a full ride to LSU, his father encouraged him to wheel and deal.
CLARKE DEMARS: Initially, I didn't actually get merit scholarship here, but I wrote a letter of concern to apply. I listed all of the scholarships I got from other schools and ended up getting a nice scholarship from here.
FARMER: For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.