Breaking with tradition, colleges try to slow tuition increases

STAYING AHEAD

April 07, 1991|By Jane Bryant Quinn | Jane Bryant Quinn,1991, Washington Post Writers Group

NEW YORK — New York--A change of heart at some of the nation's pricies private colleges will save battered students and their parents a substantial amount of money. Instead of reaching for the usual giant tuition increase, the schools are deliberately holding prices down for 1991-92.

Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., will charge an extra 4.5 percent, the lowest increase in 17 years. Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., is up 5.15 percent. Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., held its price increase to 5.9 percent, the lowest in at least 18 years.

By comparison, average prices for four-year private colleges rose 8 percent last year, according to the College Board.

In the most riveting step of all, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Mass., kept its prices level. "We were pricing ourselves out of the market with parents," says Neil Norum, a WPI spokesman.

These schools' commendable restraint won't open their doors to students who can't afford them now. Middlebury costs $21,200 before any discounts for student aid. Tuition, room and board comes to $21,262 at Stanford, $21,240 at Wesleyan and $18,575 at Worcester Polytech. By raising prices 5 percent instead of 8 percent, a $20,000 school saves students only $600 this year.

So the cuts are, in part, a public-relations gesture. High-priced schools are sending strapped parents a message: "We sympathize; we're trying to help."

These savings add up, however, when they're projected over a decade, says Middlebury's president, Timothy Light. At 8 percent tuition inflation, a $20,000 college would cost roughly $43,200 in 2001. At 5 percent inflation, it would cost $32,600. That's $10,600 less.

As long as your family income rises at least by the general inflation rate (6.2 percent in 1990), you should find many private colleges no more expensive in 2001 than they are now, relatively speaking.

What finally turned high-priced colleges dovish on tuition increases? Fear of losing their franchise in an era of diminished family incomes and savings. Competition for able students is growing fierce as the small, baby-bust generation reaches college age. Growing numbers of middle-class students who might once have gone to a private school are choosing top public universities instead, because they cost less.

The issue of cost is always a tricky one. Only higher-income families pay a college's sticker price. Everyone else gets some sort of discount. During the 1980s, colleges played Robin Hood. They took from the rich and used part of that money to give financial aid to the poor.

But every time a school's price goes up, larger numbers of students qualify for aid -- making Robin Hood policies self-defeating.

Not all colleges are holding down rates. Reed College in Portland, Ore.,raised tuition, room and board by 12.7 percent to $21,210. Ohio Wesleyan raised basic costs by 9.75 percent, to $18,494.

Slower tuition increases mean budget cuts. Middlebury will slash its spending by about $2 million and WPI by $2.5 million. Says Middlebury's Timothy Light, "Colleges will have to make choices and play to their strengths. They can't all do everything."

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