When Cabrini College said last month it was cutting undergraduate tuition and fees 12.5 percent for the 2012-13 academic year, officials said it was important to bring Cabrini's $33,176 price tag back under $30,000.
The Radnor college was alone among the seven small Catholic schools in the Philadelphia area in charging more than $30,000. What's more, only three small Catholic institutions from Maine to Virginia cost more than Cabrini this year.
The six other local colleges in Cabrini's cohort are Chestnut Hill College, Gwynedd-Mercy College, Immaculata University, Holy Family University, Neumann University, and Rosemont College.
Cabrini's lofty financial status among peer schools was not lost on college officials.
"We were increasingly concerned about our price," said Cabrini president Marie Angelella George, who took her position in 2008, the year Cabrini first surpassed $30,000.
Under George's leadership, Cabrini moderated price increases that had been in the range of 5.6 percent to 9.2 percent annually for a decade, giving it the biggest average increase among local Catholic colleges. During each of the last three years, Cabrini's increase has been 3.4 percent.
What did Cabrini do with the additional millions it took in during its tuition surge?
A big chunk of it went toward beefing up instructional programs, according to an Inquirer analysis of data from the Delta Cost Project, a Washington nonprofit that maintains a database of detailed financial information on how colleges spend money.
Cabrini's per-student spending on instruction, adjusted for inflation, rose 44 percent from the 1998-99 academic year to the 2008-09 academic year, the last year for which data were available from the Delta Cost Project. That was the biggest increase among the small Catholic colleges in the region.
Several other schools had bigger increases in institutional support - which includes administration, accounting, security, alumni relations, development, and more - than in instruction. The increases, college officials said, were needed to support growth.
Cabrini's tuition turnabout this year came amid increasing attention to growth in college tuition, which for years has outstripped family income gains and which has resulted in debilitating student-loan debts for thousands of recent college graduates in the current abysmal job market.
However, the other side of that economic coin is higher education as a stable economic engine. Employment at all colleges and universities in the Philadelphia region climbed even during 2008 and 2009, reaching 56,062, before dropping last year less than a quarter of a percent.
Along with the rest of higher education, Cabrini and other small Catholic institutions have been riding a growth wave, expanding enrollment during the decade that ended in 2009 at more than twice the rate of non-Catholic peer institutions.
The number of students at Catholic schools, including graduate students, measured on the basis of full-time equivalents, climbed 60 percent, to 13,912 from 8,691. Other small private institutions had a 26 percent increase, to 29,137 from 23,086.
Three of the Catholic schools - Chestnut Hill, Immaculata, and Rosemont - went co-ed during the last decade, but they were not the schools with the greatest growth in student enrollment.
Neumann University in Aston had the largest percentage gain in overall enrollment, more than doubling its size to 3,037 students in 2008-09, from 1,415 in 1998-99. Neumann, with the lowest tuition among the seven, increased instructional spending per student while spending less in other areas. However, it still spends less per student on instruction than other schools.
Holy Family University, with the second-lowest tuition, had the highest per-student spending on instruction, at $6,955, up 28 percent over the decade.
Asked why institutional-support spending rose more than spending on instruction, officials at Chestnut Hill and Immaculata in Chester County said the former women's colleges had too few students in the late 1990s and early 2000s. When enrollment started increasing, the schools did not have to add faculty immediately.
Immaculata spokeswoman Marie E. Moughan also said the costs of institutional advancement, including marketing and public relations, had grown dramatically at Immaculata, where per-student spending on institutional support climbed 52 percent, compared to an 8 percent increase in per-student spending on instruction.
Three-quarters of Immaculata's "students are working adults enrolled in undergraduate or graduate-degree programs in a market that is increasingly competitive," Moughan said. "This demands a more aggressive marketing posture than that of the late '90s."
At Chestnut Hill College, institutional support climbed 50 percent and instructional spending was up 17 percent per student.
The two biggest increases in institutional support were for security and debt service on bonds used to build a residence hall and to expand the campus, said Lauri Strimkovsky, Chestnut Hill College chief of staff and senior vice president for financial affairs.
In the late 1990s, "we had 250 students living on campus," Strimkovsky said. "Now we have 500 students living on campus. We have classes . . . going six days a week up until 10 o'clock at night. What we're doing, it may be in institutional support, but it's there to support the students that we have studying and living on campus."
Like Cabrini, Chestnut Hill was conscious of the $30,000 mark when deciding its tuition, she said, and set it for the coming academic year at $29,995.
Cabrini president George said the school had fallen off the radar of students who use online college search engines that can capture only schools with tuition less than $30,000.
Because very few students pay full price, it is not clear how much revenue Cabrini will lose because of its new rate. "I know it goes down slightly," she said, but it will not take away from the school's educational mission.
"I do know how to lead and manage and invest," George said.