A brake on tuition increases

Martha E. Church & Lois Smith Harrison

March 13, 1992|By Martha E. Church & Lois Smith Harrison

IT'S time to put the brakes on tuition increases at private colleges.

This is a matter of survival, not just for individual private colleges, but for the students who benefit from the many special programs and options private colleges provide and, in the long range, for our diverse society in which all segments must be well-educated if America is to continue to be a world leader.

What spiraling costs mean is that fewer students -- and a less varied group of students -- can afford to choose a private college. The middle-income students are already an endangered species increasingly overburdened by the necessity to work part-time to foot higher tuition bills. The consequence is that they are less likely to do well in studies, let alone participate in the extracurricular opportunities that make college special.

Alexander Astin and his colleagues at the University of California Los Angeles have been surveying college freshmen for 26 years. Last fall, they reported an all-time high in the numbers of students who made their college choice on the basis of low tuition and strong financial aid.

"It . . . appears that economic realities are forcing many students not only to go to work while attending college, but also to choose colleges on the basis of economic considerations rather than educational ones," Dr. Astin observed.

Just as the recession is affecting why students choose specific colleges, it also is changing their college experience: Nearly 40 percent of the first-time traditional-aged students last fall reported they would need to work part-time to pay college expenses. This is an understandable, yet disheartening, development, particularly for first-year students. Research suggests that involvement in campus life contributes significantly to overall success in college. Adding a job to the pressures of a demanding academic program and adjustment to life away from home can be overwhelming.

Ironically, the recession is contributing to the pressures private colleges feel to continue to increase tuition and fees. Many revenue sources -- such as state support and corporate giving -- have decreased, or at best leveled off. At the same time, those colleges that have prided themselves on meeting the full financial need of qualified applicants are experiencing rising financial aid costs -- in part because students who apply are needier than ever.

Even in the wake of significant cost-cutting (elimination of programs, reduction of staffing and decreased operating budgets), many private colleges are running in the red. So they turn to the obvious source: They increase tuition, room and board.

Will private higher education become less accessible to the middle class, those not eligible for significant amounts of financial aid and not able to pay the full price of tuition, and to the neediest students whose financial needs outstrip the resources at these institutions? Are these colleges in effect pricing themselves out of an increasingly price-sensitive market, decreasing even further the pool of students who will consider applying? And will the students who do choose private institutions pay a price that is more than simply the additional dollars on their tuition bills -- by taking on even greater outside work obligations?

We believe the answers are yes, yes and yes. Further, we believe it is time to stop -- or at least slow -- the upward climb of college tuitions and take a long, thoughtful look at ways private colleges can offer a more affordable education without sacrificing quality.

There are no quick fixes. But we must begin to evaluate and experiment. First, we must look at the price of private higher education. Can we freeze tuition and look elsewhere -- to the private sector as well as to new partnerships with the public sector -- for the revenues we need to operate first-rate colleges? Can we increase financial support through partnerships with business or other institutions?

Second, we should consider options that can provide the same high-quality content in more affordable packages. Let's rethink all of our basic assumptions about what a college education is "supposed" to be. Can we, for example, design a three-year bachelor's degree? There may be a way to offer a five-year program combining bachleor's and master's degrees but costing what students now pay for a single four-year degree.

We also have to take a hard look at our missions. In good economic times, and during years in which students were plentiful, many of our institutions expanded. As we begin to cut back, we must acknowledge that we cannot be all things to all students. We must concentrate on that which each of us does best, eliminate the "extras" and focus on our strengths.

Martha E. Church is president and Lois Smith Harrison is chair of the Board of Trustees at Hood College in Frederick. The school announced a few days ago that it would not increase tuition, room and board for next year.

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