Some universities buck trend, cut tuition for students

A slew of swanky private schools and public universities merrily, myopically raised tuition once again this fall. At the University of Washington, for example, tuition and fees are up some 15 percent from last year. Basic tuition at Cornell University costs close to $2,000 more this year.

The gravy train of perpetually rising college costs may be coming to an end, though. Many schools — particularly public schools — have decreased their rates of increase in response to the comatose economy.

For example, tuition at state-funded colleges and universities in Virginia increased by a relatively meager 4.1 percent in 2012. That’s down from an increase of nearly eight percent in 2011 and it’s the lowest rate of increase in the past decade.

In-state tuition at Rutgers University will increase 2.5 percent this year. Rutgers students (and their parents) aren’t happy about the higher price but it sure beats the tuition increases of eight percent or more students previously routinely suffered during the last decade.

A number of schools have implemented tuition freezes. Tuition at both the University of Arizona and Arizona State University is unchanged from last year. Undergraduate tuition and fees at the University of Texas at Austin will pause at just under $5,000 per semester for the next two years. Students at Maine’s seven public universities are also enjoying a tuition freeze (the first in the Pine Tree State in 25 years).

In the private-school realm, Mount Holyoke College, a prestigious all-women’s bastion in Massachusetts, and Kendall College, a for-profit outfit in Chicago for future chefs, are among several schools that have recently announced some variation of a tuition freeze.

In what could be either a harbinger of the future higher education bubble or a meaningless flash in the pan, a handful of undergraduate schools around the country have actually cut tuition for the upcoming year as well.

Here are six of them.

Sewanee: the University of the South

The University of the South — generally called Sewanee by locals — is a small, tradition-rich bastion of the liberal arts and sciences amid the scenic mountains of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau.

For the 2011-12 academic year, Sewanee slashed the total cost of tuition, fees, and room and board by 10 percent. The price cut amounted to about $4,600. Also, the cost of Sewanee will remain basically unchanged for students who are already enrolled.

That’s the good news.

Sadly, the price tag for this year’s crop of first-year students has crept some $3,000 higher (but it’s still lower than the pre-reduction price).

Certainly, the big, well-publicized tuition cut did the trick for Sewanee from an admissions standpoint. “Applications were up,” said Laurie Saxton, Sewanee’s director of media relations. “The numbers of freshmen are up. This is the largest first-year class ever. Last year was our previous high.”

Seton Hall University

Seton Hall University is a midsize school in the thick of New Jersey’s sprawl that offers a strong Catholic identity and smaller class sizes. This year, entering students with outstanding grades and at least solid standardized test scores are paying the same tuition rate as the in-state tuition rate at Rutgers. The discount amounts to over $21,000, approximately two-thirds off the regular price.

It turns out that the laws of supply and demand prevail in the education industry just like every other industry. “We received a lot of applications from students who fit the profile of the program,” said Alyssa McCloud, vice president of enrollment management at Seton Hall. “A lot more people applied.”

Students entering in 2012 who remain in good academic standing will remain eligible for the price match program for four years. Their annual tuition will go up roughly as much as Rutgers increases its tuition.

Seton Hall’s finance people must still crunch the numbers but Seton Hall is likely to continue the discount program for future incoming classes.

Cabrini College

Cabrini College is a small, cozy Catholic school located in a posh, leafy suburb of Philadelphia. Beginning this fall, tuition and fees are a tidy $29,000 per year, down from over $33,000. Cabrini has pledged to keep the total cost of tuition and fees under $30,000 through May 2015.

The exact price point is the result of some savvy internet marketing strategy. As a result of the price reduction, more prospective students who use online college search engines will now see Cabrini.

“Students who might be the perfect fit for Cabrini, but who do not look at colleges above $30,000, may begin to consider Cabrini,” explained school president Marie Angelella George.

Also worth noting is the fact that current students aren’t getting socked with less merit-based aid.

“While other colleges have reduced tuition and fees recently, we believe that Cabrini College is the only institution to do so without reducing the dollar amount of scholarships for returning students,” said Dennis Kelly, vice president for enrollment management.

University of Charleston in West Virginia

The University of Charleston in West Virginia — not to be confused with the College of Charleston in South Carolina — is a small private school in the capital city of The Mountain State. This fall, entering students will owe $19,500 for tuition, which is a 22 percent discount off of last year’s sticker price. Tuition for returning students will be $25,500 with a guarantee of at least $6,000 in university aid.

“Our current students are ecstatic,” reported Jennie Ferretti, vice president for communications at the University of Charleston. “They and their families were very happy that we were making a move toward transparency in higher education pricing.”

According to officials at UC, a new policy of financial transparency is nearly as big a selling point as the cut itself. The gap between the advertised price and the actual tuition paid at private colleges has grown over the years, they say, as tuition has skyrocketed but family incomes have not. Shocking sticker prices have discouraged many middle income students from applying.

“Almost all private colleges raise tuition every year but also raise financial aid,” explained Ferretti. “We’re trying to get away from that and give students and families clear and consistent information.”

William Peace University

Tiny, Presbyterian-affiliated William Peace University ushered in massive changes this fall. In addition to an ongoing athletic facilities makeover and increased student activities, there is the small matter of going from all-female to coeducational. On top of all those transformations, WPU has lowered tuition by eight percent.

“This year we had a 75 percent increase in commits,” reported Justin G. Roy, vice president of communications and marketing at WPU. “It would be nice to say that x percent came from the tuition cut, but it’s hard to say.”

The school’s retention rate did go up 10 percent, which could indicate that current students are responding positively to the lower tuition rate.

Duquesne University

Duquesne University is a midsize, comprehensive Catholic school located on a bluff above downtown Pittsburgh. The tuition discount here, such as it is, is minor but worth reporting. The deal, which may or may not extend beyond this year, is a 50 percent scholarship covering tuition and fees for first-year students who enroll in Duquesne’s School of Education. Solid academic credentials are a must. For participating students, the scholarship will keep pace with any tuition and fee increases.

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