Who actually benefits when colleges freeze tuition?

As colleges face ongoing calls to curb costs and seek to attract potential students, a number have frozen tuition prices—but the perk doesn’t benefit all students equally. According to the The Hechinger Report, “these freezes are misleading, as actual costs of college can actually increase for some students who may rely on financial aid to attend.” Historically, tuition freezes primarily help students paying the full sticker price.

Minimal improvement at lower income levels

Dozens of institutions decided not to increase their tuition this fall as the world still grapples with the pandemic. Moreover, The Hechinger Report’s tuition tracker shows at least 41 public universities with accessible data that consistently kept “their published tuition from rising more than 5 percent from 2010 and 2018.”

However, for students at those schools with annual family incomes of $48,000 or less, the net price ended up increasing by approximately the same amount as it did for students with similar income levels at schools that hiked tuition even more.

In the University of Wisconsin system, meanwhile, many low-income students have actually seen their net price increase across the last decade, even though tuition has held steady since 2013.

Looking at private colleges, The Hechinger Report found that, in many cases, the lowest-income students benefited when their institutions raised sticker prices—perhaps because those schools directed the additional revenue toward financial aid. Low-income students at private colleges that raised tuition by more than 5 percent since 2010 saw an 18 percent average decrease in net price. Those at private institutions that increased tuition by 5 percent or less since 2010 saw their net price stay flat.

Lack of transparency, consistency a barrier

Between discounting, families’ widely divergent financial situations, and other factors, the actual amount students pay to attend a college varies significantly.

Related: Discount rates at private colleges reach record levels >

The fluctuation and lack of transparency regarding college costs could be deterring potential students from applying and going to college altogether, experts say.

“Institutions lose students because they think it’s too expensive,” Phillip Levine, a Wellesley College professor and the founder of a net-price calculator called MyinTuition, told The Hechinger Report. “There are high-level institutions that are underrepresented with lower socioeconomic-status students and are working very hard to improve that. You can’t do that if people think you charge $75,000 or $80,000 a year and can’t get through the barrier of costs.”

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