Does Lowering Cost Mean Lower Standards for Higher Education?

Several institutions have recently announced cutting or freezing tuition. For example, Belmont Abbey College announced a cost of attendance price reduction, and Wittenberg University and Mount Holyoke College froze their tuition for the upcoming year. Given the industry's growth in tuition over the past decade and the media attention surrounding student loan debt loads, these reports have been met with praise from the media.

I suspect many parents of students considering college are paying close attention to the coverage and breathing a sigh of relief at the thought of decreases in college costs.

However, this may be a classic case of caveat emptor. I admit to being very curious about what colleges are doing (or more accurately, not doing) to afford freezing or cutting their tuition, and I hope parents and prospective students are wondering how the institutions are making ends meet, too. Private colleges have two major sources of income -- tuition and private giving. Recent research suggests philanthropy alone is not the answer to college funding, further prompting tuition-focused questions.

If I were a student or the parent of a student considering one of these colleges, I'd ask the following:

  • As a result of the potential revenue decreases, are you cutting or reducing support for any academic or student affairs programs or services? If so, which programs?
  • How will my experience be different from the experience of a student five years ago, who paid more to attend?
  • Are you cutting any financial assistance? How will the freeze/cut affect my financial assistance or financial future?
  • What might future increases look like and how will you help students meet the increases?

As a college administrator and the father of three, I wonder:

  • Will the cost per student truly decrease at these institutions, or will their sticker price and actual price be aligned?
  • Does your tuition reduction plan entail growing enrollment, therefore making up for lost revenue by attracting more students?
  • If yes, do you have the resources and facilities to accommodate more students without adding to your expenses or taking away from each student's experience?
  • How do you plan to maintain your student-faculty ratio?
  • How will you offer financial aid to increasingly financially needy students?
  • How will you continue to offer pay raises to faculty, staff and administrators?
  • How will you meet inflationary demands on operating budgets and increasing operating expenses -- particularly benefits, health care and energy?
  • How will you maintain buildings without increasing revenue to address depreciation and deferred maintenance needs?

Ultimately, I call on parents to pose critical questions to any institution your child is considering attending. It is standard practice to do our homework before buying a car, a purchase we plan to have last for years. When making a decision that will impact the rest of your child's life, allow yourself at least the same amount of time for conducting research and due diligence. Look beyond the sticker price and bells and whistles to discern the experience your child will receive, the support available to get them through to graduation and the value of their degree as they enter the workforce.

Don't fall for gimmicks or bait-and-switch tactics from any institution on their price or the financial aid package they offer. If you aren't sure how to compare offers from institutions, I suggest using the following list as a starting point:

  • What are the four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates for the institution?
  • What is the anticipated cost of attending the institution for four years? Five years? Six years?
  • What is the average debt load per student upon graduation?
  • Are the offered scholarships and/or merit aid just for the first year or all four years of attendance?
  • Do scholarships or merit aid require your student to maintain a specific GPA? If so, what percentage of the students in your child's major hold that GPA? What resources are available if your student is worried about maintaining their grades?

The silence from peer colleges around tuition freezing or cost cutting reflects hesitancy on the part of higher education professionals to shower too much praise or criticism before our questions are answered. We are in the early stages of evaluating the short- and long-term merit of these approaches. However, prospective students and parents are in an immediate position to ask the hard questions, and really consider whether they are getting the "deal" that bold announcements seem to suggest.

-- W. Kent Barnds, Augustana College