Colleges revisit tuition, fees as fall semester comes into focus

A number of colleges and universities in recent weeks have announced plans to deliver instruction partially or entirely online this fall—and some are pairing those changes with a reduction in tuition or fees. The decisions to freeze or reduce tuition reflect institutions’ awareness that COVID-19 has strained many families’ finances, and that students will not have a typical campus experience this year.

Asked to study online this fall, students nationwide have been urging colleges and universities to revisit their prices. Institutions are juggling those demands alongside revenue loss and budget gaps. Struggling colleges realize that “discounting tuition could deepen their losses, but failing to take action could have the same effect if students forgo enrollment,” The Washington Post writes.

Meanwhile, at private colleges with stronger finances and longer waitlists, decisions to reduce tuition reflect a desire to “ease the financial burden on students,” Denisa Gándara, an education policy professor at Southern Methodist University, told Education Dive.

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Financial Aid and COVID-19

Charlene Brown-McKenzie, director of Georgetown’s Center for Multicultural Equity and Access, and Missy Foy, director of the Georgetown Scholars Program, discuss the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on students who rely on financial aid.

Many freeze tuition, some reduce costs

Dozens of institutions have rolled back planned tuition increases and held costs flat, Money reports, adding that “a much smaller set of colleges” have actually reduced tuition.

Georgetown University—which announced last week that it will start the semester in virtual mode—will reduce tuition for all undergraduate students by 10 percent and for all graduate students by 5 percent for the fall semester.

“We recognize the significant investments students and families make to pursue a Georgetown education,” Georgetown University Provost Robert M. Groves and Georgetown Chief Operating Officer Geoffrey S. Chatas wrote in a message to students earlier this summer. “We maintain our deep commitment to attracting the most promising students regardless of their financial circumstances. To support that commitment, Georgetown continues to be one of only a few dozen colleges that maintains a ‘need-blind’ admissions and a ‘meet-full-need’ financial aid program for undergraduates… and during this unprecedented and challenging time, we will continue to work to aid all students in need of financial assistance.”

Watch: How Georgetown University works to make college accessible and affordable >

A promise of free tuition in the future

Taking a different approach, a small number of institutions are promising a future tuition benefit for students who enroll now. Washington-based Pacific Lutheran University has said that undergraduates enrolled full-time for 2020-21 will receive an extra, tuition-free year after their anticipated graduation date, while full-time graduate students will be eligible to take free continuing education credits—a move intended to give students extra time to have the complete college experience.

St. Norbert’s, which is offering enrolled students a tuition-free ninth semester, says the incentive will give students the flexibility to scale back during the coronavirus crisis or catch up on missed opportunities, including athletic competitions. “It’s one small thing that the college can do to help these students make good choices to keep enrolled and to stay on the path to graduate,” Brian Bruess, St. Norbert’s president told Education Dive.

Tuition reductions out of reach for some institutions

Still, “most colleges will preserve their tuition and fee structures,” Education Dive reports. Some may opt instead to revise individual students’ financial aid packages as needed. Public institutions may find it especially difficult to quickly shift gears, given that their tuition prices are often set at a state level or by a systemwide governing board.

Colleges and universities also are emphasizing that online instruction does not reduce their costs. “We can’t talk about prices without talking about costs,” Gándara told The Washington Post. “When institutions reduce the tuition price, they may end up getting less revenue, but their costs are increasing in a lot of cases. We’re talking technology purchases, faculty training, health insurance premiums.” A recent Brookings analysis looked at the use of online instruction at more than 200 four-year institutions, finding that the “movement to online education is unlikely to reduce instructional costs.”

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