In Connecticut's crowded business higher education field, the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford is looking for a way to stand out.
Rhona Free, an economist and administrator who became USJ's president in 2015 after more than 30 years at Eastern Connecticut State University, says she may have found one.
Starting this fall, USJ will dangle a unique incentive to incoming accounting and management majors: Earn a bachelor's degree with an adequate GPA and receive free entry into USJ's management master's degree program. The 36-credit master's degree normally costs nearly $28,000 in tuition, USJ said.
The new offering is part of a broader effort led by Free to grow the school's student population, which could also include expanding undergraduate enrollment at the private women's college to men.
"All colleges and universities are looking at innovative changes to meet student needs and make college and master's degrees affordable," Free said in an interview last week.
The school is rolling out the incentive for business students because administrators want to reverse recent enrollment declines in the modest-sized program. Free said peer colleges have 25 percent of their total student population enrolled in business programs, while USJ only has 5 percent.
The incentive also coincides with the 40th anniversary of USJ's economics/business major. While business education isn't new at USJ, the nonprofit college is best known for its nursing and education programs.
"I don't think we emphasized our business programs enough in the past," Free said.
She said USJ can claim a number of successful graduates in the business world, including executives and managers at Travelers, The Hartford, IBM and other companies. USJ recently convened a new group of area business leaders to advise faculty on employer needs. USJ plans to hire three new full-time business faculty over the next two years to accommodate what it hopes will be an influx of new students.
Free said training students for professions that meet social needs, such as nursing, will remain USJ's identity, but the school is also looking to diversify.
Free has convened a taskforce to study whether USJ should admit men, who are currently only allowed in the school's graduate and adult learning programs, into its undergraduate programs. The gender discussion remains ongoing, but Free said it's "the most important decision" USJ is weighing right now.
Other changes under Free's watch so far include the creation of a criminal justice program and four new concentrations in the undergraduate management program — targeted at nonprofits, health care, sports and marketing.
All of those changes have been part of the same broader discussion about the school's future, she said.
USJ's new offering for business majors, tentatively named "4+1," will launch with freshmen who enroll in the fall semester this September.
The school has not yet decided whether already enrolled students will be eligible for the program. Meanwhile, certain transfer students would be eligible for a partial tuition discount.
The incentive is designed to attract mainly full-time undergraduates to the master's program.
It's technically a fifth year without tuition, though there will still be some fees.
Most students can only complete the master's program in a calendar year if they attend full time, Free said. But USJ will make accommodations for some students who need to attend part time. Such arrangements will be made upfront in a plan of study.
As long as a qualifying student follows the terms of that plan, they will get the tuition break, she said.
For those looking to attend or return to college for a business degree, Connecticut has no shortage of options.
In the most immediate vicinity, USJ competes with the University of Hartford's Barney School of Business, which offers both a management master's degree and MBA programs, which USJ does not offer. Also offering MBAs, a degree that typically takes longer to complete, are UConn, Central Connecticut State University, and a number of others.
One of the goals of USJ's new incentive is to draw associate degree graduates from Capital Community College and Manchester Community College, Free said.
Free said she hopes the incentive will help the school double the number of undergraduate accounting and master's management majors within two years. Those programs currently enroll 47 and 33 students, respectively.
Finding new ways to attract students is a broader trend in higher education, especially as Connecticut's student population shrinks.
At least several schools have offered incentives similar to USJ, including Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and the Milwaukee School of Engineering in Wisconsin. But free tuition for a graduate degree is rare in most areas of study. Free said she's unaware of any Connecticut schools offering such a program.
At Clark, a similar program offering an accelerated, free fifth year was launched in 1994, said Kevin McKenna, Clark's senior associate dean. Clark's program is broader than USJ's, offered to an array of undergrads in majors ranging from biochemistry to finance. There are approximately 100 graduating seniors enrolled in the program, McKenna said.
State government has also tested out some education innovation. Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield and Western Connecticut State University in Danbury are offering in-state tuition rates to out-of-state students in an attempt to woo students from nearby Massachusetts and New York.
And in 2014, state legislators approved the "Go Back to Get Ahead" program, which provided free tuition for three course credits to entice Connecticut residents who hadn't completed their degree to return to school. The program ended in 2015 and enrolled more than 1,400 students, according to its overseer, Connecticut State Colleges and Universities.
Correction: The version of this story in HBJ's Jan. 9 print edition gives an inaccurate price for a management master's degree at USJ. The degree is 36 credits at $769 per credit, totaling approximately $27,684.