The cost of college keeps climbing, and schools these days are considering all kinds of innovative options to keep costs low.

But one liberal-arts college recently announced a radical new approach that does away with the idea of tuition altogether and instead counts on something else: gratitude.

The school in question is Hope College in Michigan, and here’s the idea: give students a college education for free and hope that they will pay it all back in donations in the course of their lifetimes.

That might seem like it would make it challenging to balance the books. But the college’s president, Matthew Scogin, has spent part of his career on Wall Street, and he says he’s crunched the numbers. He’s even convinced the college’s board to try it, as a pilot at least, in a program called Hope Forward.

We sat down with Scogin during the SXSW EDU conference in Austin earlier this month to hear more about the plan, and how it’s going so far.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: What is the big idea here?

Matthew Scogin: The idea is essentially, “Can we have a pay-it-forward funding model for college?”

The two prevailing funding models today are ‘pay as you go’ where you pay your college or university at the start of every semester or a ‘pay it back’ model where you pay a bank or a lender after you graduate. And most people of course fund it through some combination of the two.

We’re essentially asking the question, “Could we have a pay-it-forward model where students come to Hope they don’t pay anything upfront?” Their tuition is funded by the gifts of others. And they then make a commitment to give something to Hope after they graduate every year.

Another way to think about it is a crowdfunded model—so that our alumni would be crowdfunding our current students. And what we’re trying to do is not work within the current structure, but imagine an entirely new structure that moves away from tuition entirely as a funding model. Because we think the tuition model’s not just broken. We think it actually does some toxic things for the learning environment.

So you’re saying this isn’t just a different kind of scholarship, but an attempt to change the narrative around paying for college?

It’s changing the business model for sure. We actually think it’s—in a dramatic way—changing the culture of our campus environment, changing the kind of relationship we can have with students. It’s moving away from the consumer mindset, moving away from a transactional relationship where students pay a lot of money, get a degree and then move on with their lives.

Students who come to Hope as part of Hope Forward are committing to have this lifelong engagement with Hope. So it’s not a four-year relationship. It’s this lifelong partnership. And we think that creates interesting accountability on both sides. The students feel the weight of the commitment they’ve made, and we, too, feel skin in the game because we are now highly incentivized to help our students be successful after they graduate.

It sounds like with the current model you’re even hearing students and parents saying, “I’m paying you a lot. I need to have it this way.”

Yeah. It’s creating this actually this sense of entitlement. I think that’s contributing to this crazy arms race we’re seeing, where too many colleges are trying to recruit students to their campus based on amenities—luxury dining halls and, and lazy rivers and all these things that are totally ancillary to the point of college, which I, I think ought to be about education at the end of the day.

Hope’s tuition is around $37,000 a year. That’s a lot of money to expect students to give as a gift later in their lives. How do you make sure students actually pay?

So they’re signing a commitment. I sign it and they sign it. So I think maybe it feels like it’s got some weight to it because the president has signed it. We’ll of course remind them of that commitment if they’re not following up on it, but at the end of the day, it’s not a legal contract. We’re not gonna send the repo man after you if you haven’t given to Hope. So we understand that there might be some free riders, but we’re pretty optimistic, and we’ve got their four years while they’re at Hope to really instill this mindset of giving into them.

How are you phasing this in?

For now we’re testing it with a small group of students. So we have 22 students on our campus right now who are living into this. And what we’re seeing with these 22 students is they’re taking this commitment incredibly seriously. They’ll come up to me and say, “How do I plan for a life of giving?” Another student asked me last week, “Can I thank the donors who have given to this program?” They’ve only completed one semester of college, and these students are already oriented around gratitude and generosity. So I’m optimistic that it’s gonna work.

How soon do you think it could get to the whole campus?

It won’t be anytime soon. I think it’s probably a decade maybe longer than that to get from where we are today to all of our 3,000 students living into this,

We need to raise a billion dollars in our endowment to flip the switch. It’s a substantial amount of money, for sure. It’s an amount of money that we can raise though.

Hear the rest of the conversation on the EdSurge Podcast.

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