Colleges try to limit diploma costs Private schools fear hefty tuition will keep students away

March 09, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Concerned that potential students see the costs of a degree bounding out of control, many Maryland private colleges are trying to limit how sharply they raise tuition charges next fall.

One school, Washington College in Chestertown, is trying to attract quality students by guaranteeing hefty scholarships to high school honor students. Even so, at many Maryland private campuses, total costs will surpass $20,000 next year, a legacy of the sharp increases by American schools during the 1980s.

"In the private sector, there's a logic based on, frankly, what the market will bear," said David Breneman, dean of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education. "These increases were really starting to outstrip the growth in family income, and it was starting to take its toll on enrollments."

At Washington College, school officials find that their sticker price -- $16,800 next fall for tuition -- scares away some potential students. The tuition charge represents a 4.5 percent increase, its lowest rise in the past 21 years. And most students at the college, like their counterparts at other private campuses, receive significant financial aid.

But the administration wanted to improve the caliber of its students while building its student body from 870 to 1,000 in two years. So the campus created the Washington College Scholars program, promising a $10,000 annual scholarship to any admitted student who belonged to his or her high school's chapter of the National Honor Society. (As 85 percent of applicants are admitted, honors students are likely to get in.)

It's a real eye-catcher for Maryland students, many of whom also qualify for a state scholarship worth several thousand dollars annually. More than 1,500 high school seniors applied to Washington College this year, up from 1,000 students a year ago.

"It was the [Honor Society] hook that really brought the award and the institution to their attention," Kevin Coveney, the college's vice president for admissions and enrollment management, said of the new flock of applicants. "The average [financial aid] award is not going to be significantly above what we would have offered anyhow."

'Marketing ploy'

Carol Frigo, a college counselor at Baltimore's City College, called the scholarship a "marketing ploy." But, she said, the offer should nonetheless attract the attention of serious students. "I think it's refreshing to see an offer based totally on academics," she said.

Several other private campuses nationally have attempted similar moves. The University of Rochester, for example, cut its tuition rates by $5,000 for New York residents to compete with the well-regarded (and less-expensive) State University of New York system. And Muskingum College in Ohio dropped its tuition rate roughly 30 percent for next year. Like Washington College, those schools are merely publicizing the discounts they offer to get students on campus, observers said.

"The jury's out on that one," said the University of Virginia's Dr. Breneman, an economist and former college president who has written extensively on college costs. "It's not a clear winning proposition."

The issue of cost is not just facing private campuses. It has taken flight at public universities as well. The California state university system, for example, has frozen tuition for next fall at this year's levels.

In Maryland, at the behest of student leaders, Del. James C. Rosapepe, a Democrat from College Park, has introduced a bill to limit tuition increases for state residents at the University of Maryland System for the next five years. Although it is opposed ** by the higher education establishment, the legislation quickly gained 17 co-sponsors, a measure of the idea's rising popularity.

"Too many middle-class families are getting priced out of public higher education," Mr. Rosapepe said. "I think it's important for the legislature and the public to wrestle with what kind of priority Maryland is going to put on high-quality higher education for middle-class students and their families.

"We've been moving in the wrong direction for the last couple of years," he said.

A survey of some private campuses in Maryland indicates tuition rates rising a percentage point or two above the rate of inflation, which has hovered near 3 percent recently. That's down significantly from the 1980s, when increases frequently

exceeded twice the inflation rate.

$20,000 plus at Hopkins

At the Johns Hopkins University for the school year starting in August, undergraduate tuition will surpass $20,000 for the first time. That's not including room and board. But next year's tuition VTC rate of $20,740 represents only a 5 percent rise above this year's charge -- a far cry from the nearly 17 percent increase approved by trustees for the 1989-1990 school year.

At Western Maryland College in Westminster, trustees have mandated that tuition not rise more than 4 percent a year through the end of the century. Next fall's tuition levels will reach $16,125, which is nearly a 4 percent rise above this year.

At Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, next year's tuition will be $14,885, a 5.4 percent increase over this year. At St. John's College in Annapolis, tuition will be $19,840, roughly a 6 percent increase. The Maryland Institute, College of Art, tuition charges will rise to $15,950, a 6.7 percent increase.

Some private campuses have not yet announced their tuition rates. And those rates do not include room or food charges, which frequently push the total annual bill above $20,000.

Pub Date: 3/09/96

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