College without frills

Education: York College in Pennsylvania deliberately keeps down costs, while other schools equate high tuition with high quality.

November 03, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

YORK, Pa. - There are times when York College President George W. Waldner feels like a used-car salesman.

Parents look at the low price tag of an education at the private four-year school, and they screw up their eyes with suspicion, as if Waldner were trying to sell them an old station wagon without telling them the clutch is shot. With a tuition of only $7,000 a year, parents figure, there must be a catch.

"When people hear we're at 60 percent the cost for comparative colleges," Waldner says, "it elicits two reactions: `That's great!' and `What's wrong with the place?'

"It's an asset and a liability. People presume the lower price reflects lower quality."

Whether York College proves that presumption wrong has implications for the ever-more-expensive world of higher education.

A recent report by the College Board showed that the cost of college continues to outpace inflation, with the average tuition at four-year private colleges now $17,123, a 5.5 percent increase over last year. College administrators stoutly defend such increases as unavoidable, saying that providing a quality education is a costly undertaking.

For higher-cost colleges, York College represents an uncomfortable rebuttal.

The 4,000-student school is ranked in the second tier of regional universities by U.S. News and World Report, rubbing elbows with such familiar Maryland institutions as Frostburg State, Salisbury and Towson universities.

With entering freshmen averaging 1,090 SAT scores and a student-faculty ratio of 15:1, York fits somewhere between far more expensive schools like Goucher College, where tuition is $22,300, and Western Maryland College, where tuition is $20,500.

The truth is, Waldner and college financing experts say, there are ways to contain the cost of higher education without lowering its value. Large tuition increases, they say, might have less to do with need than with colleges' recognition that many parents equate cost with quality - what some call the "Chivas Regal effect."

"[Colleges] say, `We don't want to fall behind. If we fall behind [in cost] people will think we're not as good,' " says Frank Newman, a former president of the University of Rhode Island who is directing a higher education policy project for the Pew Charitable Trusts.

An hour's drive from Baltimore, York College counts 551 students from Maryland. School officials attribute the bargain price to four strategies: a lean administration, heavy faculty workloads, modest building projects and meager financial aid.

The last point is key. Most colleges today practice discounting, posting a high sticker price while offering breaks to the majority of students in the form of grants. The financial aid is subsidized by the families paying full fare.

York takes the opposite approach - it purposely holds tuition down so it needs to offer much less in financial aid for strapped families. Where Goucher now offers $12.4 million in direct aid for its 1,400 undergraduates, York budgets only $2.5 million for its 4,000 students.

It's a distinction that is difficult to explain to parents. "People are used to looking for deals - getting a $33,000 car for $27,000 - and they bring the same shopping mentality to colleges," Waldner says.

The rest of York's strategy is easier to grasp. While most colleges are continually building new facilities to impress applicants, York spends on construction only when it has saved enough to pay for it. As a result, it pays no debt service, which can claim up to 15 percent of college budgets.

The college's self-restraint is readily apparent on its campus, a former golf course on York's southern edge. Many colleges boast elaborate gyms, but York has a dozen exercise machines crammed into small rooms adjacent to a high school-sized basketball court.

Waldner's office sits in an unprepossessing administration building with fake wood paneling instead of the heavy oak favored by many college presidents.

Not that the college needs a large administration building: Waldner has no vice presidents, and instruction is managed by only a dean of academic affairs and the faculty department chairmen.

By contrast, 2,300-student Villa Julie College in Stevenson has two associate deans and six academic "division heads"; Western Maryland College has three associate deans of academic affairs.

In some cases, York simply doesn't provide services offered elsewhere. There is no office to coordinate study abroad - though that didn't keep seniors Tiffany and Teneka Smith, twin sisters from Baltimore, from spending a semester in South Africa.

"We found out about it pretty much on our own and did some research on the Internet," says Teneka Smith. "[The college] has some books out for you to look at."

The college gets by with a spare staff by relying on faculty, who serve on numerous administrative committees in addition to carrying a heavy course load. Many colleges expect faculty to teach two or three courses per semester; York faculty teach four.

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