Higher Learning for Less: Many Colleges Lower Tuition


It’s no secret that the cost of college tuition is on a steady rise. From 2002 to 2012, tuition at four-year public universities has nearly doubled to $8,240 per year from $4,280. Students at private universities saw tuition increase on average to $28,500 per year from $22,120 during the same 10-year period, according to the College Board. On top of these increases, the recent economic turmoil has made footing the tuition bill increasingly harder for students and their families.

However, some universities are bucking the trend and taking steps to make tuition more affordable, offering everything from free books to 10% reductions in tuition across the board. And so far, the results have been overwhelmingly positive for students and the universities.

Last year, Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee slashed its tuition by 10%, and according to

President John McCardell, Jr., the reduction increased visitors to the campus by 60%, and bumped applications by 20%.

“With the economy changing as permanently as it did in 2008, we had to look at whether our sticker price was going to serve us well going forward,” says McCardell. “The board voted last February to reduce tuition and fees across the board, and at our most recent meeting we decided to freeze that tuition price so that next year the returning sophomores, juniors and seniors will continue to pay that reduced rate.”

Sewanee reduced its sticker price to $41,500 from $46,000 per year. The 2011 freshman class was the largest in the school’s history at 433 students. Next year, McCardell says the school is on track to enroll 450 new students, a number he says is an indicator that the break in price has yielded “unprecedented success.”

At The University of Dayton, Ohio's largest Catholic university, the school announced this year plans to provide four years of free textbooks to incoming first-year students in the 2012-2013 academic year. In order to qualify for the free books, students must visit campus and fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) before March 1.

“What we found was that very often, parents would tell their children: ‘We’ll cover tuition, and you get the books,’” says  Kathy McEuen Harmon, the university’s dean of admissions.  “But with this economy, it’s not always the easiest thing for a student to get a job, and we can’t have them sacrificing a book they need for class.”

McEuen Harmon says the break on books was one of the easiest ways the school felt it could give a discount.

“It would have been very difficult to give a discount on housing or a meal plan or something of that nature because students’ needs vary greatly within those categories. But books? Everyone has to have books.”

And the gift of books doesn’t stop at the end of the semester. When students return their free books to the school’s  bookstore, the refund amount they would normally get when returning a paid book will go into a scholarship fund for the next year’s class.

While the 2008 Great Recession spurred many universities to lower tuition, at Chicago’s private North Park University, the decision to decrease tuition came in 2004.

“There was no down economy in 2004, and honestly we were at one of the healthiest places we’d ever been in our financial history,” says Nate Mouttet , vice president of enrollment. “It wasn’t a decision made out of desperation; we were on a mission to help prospective students past that first ‘sticker-shock’ moment. “

Mouttet says the university lowered tuition to $14,000 from $20,000 per year in 2004, and although tuition has slowly increased to $21,000 per year today, Mouttet  says the university is still positioned at a price point below all of its private university competitors in the Chicago area.

“It’s been a few years now and we can safely say it was a wonderful decision, but there is always a debate about whether lowering costs will damage people’s perception of you as a quality institution,” says Mouttet. “You have this reverse pressure to keep your prices up because you want people to think you’re offering an elite education that’s worth the price tag.”

Grand Canyon University, a private four-year college in Arizona, has kept its tuition frozen at $16,500 a year since 2008, and worked out deals with textbook publishers to distribute textbooks and materials electronically to students for $75 per class.

“We are in a time when a higher percentage of students need to go to college in order to have a successful life, yet tuition and room and board keep going up to the point that lower and middle-class American families are finding it out of reach,” says the university’s CEO Brian Mueller. “I think it’s totally unrealistic to ask students to take out $100,000 in loans and then go start a life under that kind of debt.”

The university currently has 4,000 undergraduate students enrolled on campus and 40,000 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled online. Mueller says since freezing tuition, the university has seen a 30% increase in enrollment, and if trends continue, the number of on-campus students will triple in three years, hitting 12,000.

“We are hoping we can continue to freeze tuition for students as we grow. We want to make it possible for students who don’t come from privileged backgrounds to continue affording school,” says Mueller.