A recent edition of Newsweek features a photo of a half dozen coeds holding placards that ostensibly reflect their individual indebtedness, each of them staring into the camera with dour looks. The cover asks, “Is College a Lousy Investment?” a question that Americans are asking more and more these days. As has been well documented, college tuition has outpaced inflation for years, and the current (jaw-dropping) $1 trillion in student debt coupled with intense pressure from a variety of sources to reduce college costs has led most of us in the academy to consider ways to enhance affordability.
A number of institutions are starting by lowering tuition, reversing a trend that has seemed inexorable. Tuition pricing is something of an art and a science, with most undergraduate programs publishing a “sticker price,” and then offering discounts or scholarships to reduce that amount. The average tuition discount in the U.S. for undergraduate programs last year was about 40 percent, and research indicates that students and parents perceive greater value when institutions publish a higher tuition rate. A few schools have tried — like some car companies — to publish a lower, “sticker price” tuition and not offer any discounts, but these efforts, for the most part, have failed to attract more students. Gary Becker, the Nobel laureate economist, and Richard Posner, the federal judge and author, have recently argued that one solution to the tuition conundrum may be to allow public schools to charge a range of tuition prices — like private schools do — based on the family’s ability to pay. Posner cogently argues that “charging low tuition to everyone, as public colleges do for residents of the state in which the college or university is located, does not make economic sense; it merely provides windfalls to families willing and able to pay the full tuition.”
Institutions like Regent University are lowering tuition to increase access, respond to the economic realities of the day, and combat a trend that must be reversed for higher education to meet its goals in America. We must find creative ways to reduce educational costs, including the use of technology (by next fall, nearly all of our bachelor’s degree can be completed in three years if students take online courses to supplement the traditional on campus experience) and course redesign.
Online degree-completion programs and graduate programs, often seen as the “cash cows” of higher ed, rarely discount their prices much. Instead, they monitor national trends and respond to changes a bit like hoteliers wanting to stay competitive with an eye to the bottom line. Online for-profit colleges, which clearly see themselves as businesses first, are especially diligent in ascertaining “consumer price points” and adjusting tuition accordingly. Students should be wary and carefully analyze all costs of attendance, as some schools claim to have reduced tuition, but simply capture the lost revenue by increasing (sometimes carefully hidden) fees.
One thing is certain: tuition alone does not cover the cost of an excellent college education. Most public schools rely on state funding and private gifts to subsidize the cost of a student’s education. (A very few public schools, like the University of Virginia, have raised staggering sums of money, and provide most of their own funding. Only 5.6 percent of UVA’s funding comes from the state.) Private colleges instead rely on endowments and alumni gifts to help cover the cost of education. A few elite schools with endowments in excess of $1 billion can fully subsidize needy students and not suffer financially, with Harvard’s financial chief recently visiting their timber holdings in Brazil in hopes of expanding their $32 billion funding nest egg.
Most experts agree that the single factor that has driven tuition costs higher over the last two decades is increases in the number of staff, often fueled by co-curricular programs and dazzling campus amenities. While faculty salaries have risen only slightly, many colleges — competing with ferocity for the limited pool of eligible students — have taken on a country club culture, with valet parking, gourmet meals, dry cleaning and other “services.” In the days ahead, we are likely to see many institutions strip away these kinds of features, reduce costs, and focus more on their core missions. Higher tuition costs are surely driving students away, as reflected in a recent report that the total number of applicants to all British universities has fallen by 7.7 percent, largely due to tuition increases there.
Some worry that as institutions look to stay afloat during this tough economy, they will slash tuition, but overall quality may suffer. Class sizes are expanding at many schools. Academic advising departments may be streamlined. Professors, asked to do more with less, may become harried, or even apathetic. Some students are already lamenting that morale seems low on their campuses, with state budget cuts causing a wide range of dismal conditions, including program cutbacks and tuition hikes to make up for lost state revenue.
There is surely some irony in the etymology of the word “tuition,” which comes from an ancient word linked to “tutor” and means “guardianship” — likely linked to those who taught students, and then inevitably got paid for their work. What was once a guardian is now threatening to become an impediment. If a college degree is still the gateway to the middle class, we will all have to be innovative and intentional to ensure that the gate is not locked for many. Reducing tuition is a noble goal and is one of the primary ways to ensure that the dream of a college education be a reality for more Americans in the days ahead.