WASHINGTON — The cost of a college education continues to increase faster than inflation; a phenomenon that's roiling family budgets and spurring calls for action on Capitol Hill. But with a little digging, parents and students can find cost-cutting deals and programs that make the paper chase a lot more affordable.
While public colleges and universities are hiking tuition to make up for dramatic reductions to state higher-education funding, private colleges – which usually receive no state funding – have greater latitude to cut costs. That’s one reason that average annual tuition increases at public colleges have been more than twice as large as those at private colleges over the last decade, according to the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center.
As more students question whether to take on massive tuition debt only to end up with degrees but no jobs, many private colleges are offering discount deals that cut, freeze or even eliminate tuition altogether for incoming students.
Duquesne University in Pittsburgh is slashing tuition by 50 percent for freshmen who enroll in the school of education this year. The price cut is good for four years for students who stay in the program.
High-achieving freshmen who enrolled at Seton Hall University by Dec. 15, 2011, will get a tuition discount of $21,000 – or 66 percent – for the 2012-13 school year. The same deal probably will go to freshmen for the 2013-14 school year.
“In these tough economic times, Seton Hall understands the financial concerns of families and is offering this program to help make a first-rate private Catholic education as affordable as a public education,” reads a website passage from the school’s office of undergraduate admissions.
Other schools – such as Ashland University in Columbus, Ohio, Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Ky., and the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston – are rolling out three-year bachelor’s degree programs for the coming school year. Students who can handle the intense workload can shave 25 percent off the cost of a four-year degree.
Jacksonville University in Florida, Medaille College in Buffalo, N.Y., and Midland University in Fremont, Neb., offer four-year “graduation guarantees” in which the school pays the additional tuition if a full-time student fails to graduate in four years. Beginning next fall, Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, will cover the extra cost no matter how long it takes to obtain a degree.
Some private colleges even waive tuition altogether for eligible students; eligibility standards vary.
Five years ago, only a handful of colleges offered these kinds of promotions, said Mark Kantrowitz, who publishes the college planning websites FinAid.org and Fastweb.com.
“Now we’re seeing more of them, but it’s still a relatively small phenomenon,” Kantrowitz said.
The deals are usually one-time only offers, with colleges looking to recoup the lost revenue by attracting more students and increasing class sizes. The special offers usually mean less financial aid.
“If the tuition is going down, then the financial need is going down. So there’s a natural reduction in the amount of financial aid that students get,” Kantrowitz said.
The discounts serve as a publicity driver for some schools, while providing students greater predictability on costs.
“You won’t get a Harvard or an Ivy League institution to do this. It’s going to be a less well-known institution that can get a lot of publicity from doing it. They have to have the capacity to enroll more students to make up the difference, so it tends to be colleges that have extra capacity and compete regionally, not nationally, for students ,” Kantrowitz said.
Burlington College in Burlington, Vt., is a prime example. With fewer than 200 students, the small liberal-arts college takes up only half of its 80,000 square feet of building space, so there’s plenty of room to grow. The school hopes to reach 300 students in the immediate future and top out eventually at 750, said Christine Plunkett, Burlington’s vice president of administration and financing.
To help make that happen, Burlington is cutting tuition 25 percent for the summer semester, which begins later this month. The college won’t raise tuition for the 2012-13 school year, either. And it guarantees that current and incoming students for the fall semester will pay the same tuition – $22,400 – for the next four years as long as they stay enrolled full time.
Assuming a 4 percent annual tuition increase each year, the rate freeze will save the average Burlington student about $5,100 over four years, Plunkett said.
Typically, only eight to 12 students enroll for summer classes at Burlington. This year, 20 have signed up for the discounted summer semester, and enrollment doesn’t close for three more weeks.
“We have students that keep registering right up to the last minute,” Plunkett said. “We have plastered our building with “25% off” signs so that all the students are aware of it. I think it does make a difference. To get an entire semester under their belt in the summer for a quarter off, that’s significant.”
More than a dozen private colleges offer tuition-free enrollment. Most require students to work during the school year and some are in remote rural areas. Nearly all have very selective enrollment criteria.
Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Ky., offers free tuition for students who live in 108 central Appalachian counties in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Students at Berea College in Berea, Ky., pay no tuition and get free laptop computers.
Deep Springs College in remote Big Pine, Calif., provides each student with a scholarship valued at $50,000 that covers tuition, room and board. Students can expect to pay roughly $2,800 a year for travel, books and incidentals. The formerly all-male college will begin accepting female students in the summer of 2013.
Several schools with strong religious emphasis also offer tuition-free education, according to FinAid.org. Barclay College in Haviland, Kan., a Bible college with just over 100 students, began offering tuition-free education in 2007.
College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo., bills itself as “Hard Work U.” Every student at the Christian college must work 15 hours a week plus two 40-hour workweeks a year. Credit for the work program, financial aid and a college “Cost of Education Scholarship” cover each student’s full tuition.
Full-time students who live in campus housing at St. Louis Christian College in Florissant, Mo., receive a scholarship that covers their tuition, while scholarships cover half of tuition costs for full-time students who commute.
For more than a century, Cooper Union in New York City has given each student a scholarship to cover tuition. But next year, the architectural and engineering school will start charging graduate students in order to address mounting budget woes. Undergraduate students who enroll for the 2013-14 school year will continue to get four years of tuition-free attendance, but it’s unclear whether succeeding freshman classes will get the same deal.
While Ivy League schools have shunned these promotions, one of the most popular cost-cutting programs – providing financial aid grants instead of loans, especially to low-income families – was pioneered by Princeton and later adopted by other Ivy League schools.
Kantrowitz said 74 colleges, private and public, now provided the same deal. Many were spurred to action when Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, began agitating for a law requiring colleges to dedicate 5 percent of their endowment spending to aid for low-income students, Kantrowitz said.