Tuition Freezes At Some Schools

In response to three decades of tuition increases, some colleges will not charge students and families more this coming school year, according to a story in the Hechinger Report.

California, Arizona, and Maine have decided to freeze tuition at their university systems (though California’s freeze depends on voters approving a tax increase in November). Some small private schools, including Burlington College in Vermont and Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, have also halted tuition increases. A few schools are even slashing tuition in the face of decreases in applications and enrollment.

The tuition freezes buck a three-decade trend of escalating higher education costs. Private schools cost, on average, $28,500 for the last school year, up from an inflation-adjusted price of $10,144 in 1981-82. For public schools, the hike in tuition and fees has been steeper, rising from $2,242 in 1981-82 to $8,244 last year.

In Arizona, one of the states not raising fees this year, tuition at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University has nearly doubled in just the last five years.

The story says colleges have been able to raise tuition as they have over the years because, while the supply of colleges has remained constant, the number of high school graduates continued to rise. But that number peaked in 2009 and will hold steady for a few years. That means schools with smaller enrollments and endowments—increasingly forced to compete for students with cheaper public institutions—will have to hold tuition steady.

If you look at the Hechinger Report’s list of schools freezing tuition this year, you’ll notice the absence of universities ranked among the top universities by U.S. News. (Two exceptions: Mount Holyoke College, a prestigious liberal arts school in Massachusetts, announced its first tuition freeze since 1968, while the University of the South, another elite liberal arts school, in Tennessee, not only froze tuition but guaranteed a four-year rate of tuition for the incoming class.)

The best schools enjoy an oversupply of applicants and offer generous aid to those who can’t afford to pay the sticker price. Stanford, for instance, accepts seven percent of applicants and waives tuition for families whose household income is less than $100,000. What incentive is there for the university to rein in tuition when the number of people willing to pay for a Stanford education continues to rise, and lower-income students, who would be most opposed to tuition hikes, aren’t complaining?

For public universities, the solution championed by the Obama administration is to increase state funding for higher education. But at a time of massive budget gaps at the state level, and with 2.5 million more public university students this next school year than in 2007-08, that’s easier said than done.

The Hechinger story tells us about Christopher Campbell, a recent University of California-Irvine graduate about to enter law school. Campbell is pushing for an amendment to the California constitution that would ban public universities from raising tuition on students once they have enrolled.

His proposal would give students and their families certainty in planning for the next four years. It would eliminate the sense of having fallen victim to false advertising when schools raise tuition 9.3 percent in one year, as public universities, on average, did in 2009.

But states would face practical challenges in determining the four-year tuition rates for students, and when they miss the mark by charging too much or too little, the costs will be distributed unevenly among students in different classes (i.e. freshmen vs. sophomores).

What happens when states, having to forecast costs for the next four years, overfund colleges by setting tuition too high? The class of 2016 will overpay and contribute to a surplus that the class of 2017 will benefit from through lower tuition. And what if the state under-prices college for the next four years? The incoming class of students will benefit, but subsequent classes will have to make up the difference.

Campbell’s proposal “makes more sense when you’re in a stable funding environment,” University of California system spokeswoman Dianne Klein told The Los Angeles Times. “If you have the volatility that we’ve had in the past few years, you’d get wild swings [in tuition] between classes that lead to their own problems.”

At least in the system we have now, all current students bear the brunt of tuition increases, and states have the flexibility of setting tuition rates based on today’s needs, not what they expect will be needed over the next four years.

Minjae Park

Minjae Park is an intern at the Washington Monthly.