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Why Tuition Freeze Is Worth the Risk

Challenging long accepted models of how higher ed institutions should do business
University Business, Mar 2010

Perhaps the most painful conversation we have as university administrators is the one with parents when their high school seniors have their hearts set on attending next fall, we have assembled the very best aid offer we can, and a rueful look from mom and dad signals that it isn't good enough. We tweak formulas, adjust loan amounts, and add a bit more to grants, but far too often the amount needed remains beyond that family's reach.

So we will not raise our tuition. Others will elect to do the same this year, but the history of tuition freezes is that within one or two years they are followed by even steeper tuition hikes because nothing about how those institutions do business has changed. We will stop price escalation by challenging the long accepted models of how we should do business. I offer three examples:

For thirteen years we have offered a three-year option for our business students that is competency-based, not time-in-seat based, and that uses integrated and team-based learning instead of simply squashing four years worth of courses into three. Students in the program save 25 percent of the cost of an undergraduate degree, not to mention gaining a year of earnings over their peers as they enter the workplace. Years of carefully collected data also show much higher graduate rates than their peers here at SNHU or nationally.

We have for two years offered a version of the first two undergraduate years with no frills - no food courts, dorm life, or student organizations. Taking classes in the morning at one of our gleaming satellite centers, students live at home and work in the afternoon. They get excellent faculty, small classes, a lot of academic support and advising - i.e., the core educational experience - and pay just 40 percent of the cost of the regular program, an enormous savings. We had a hunch that a market existed for such a program when we launched it more than a year ago. Now, in its second year, it has doubled it enrollments and garnered national attention.

We have forged close working relationships with our community college peers. Students can now apply just once and be accepted to a community college for their first two years and move right into our program for the final two years. The coursework is tightly coordinated so all 60 credits transfer in (rare for most four-year colleges, including the public institutions that are often part of the same system), there are no transfer fees, and we offer additional grant aid to even out the cost differential. As we move forward, we may even offer classes on or adjacent to the community college campus for those students who are more comfortable in the learning spaces to which they have become accustomed.

As a private university that serves the broad middle range of high school students, we compete with like private universities and with our public college and university peers. In these tough economic times, we see many of our potential students also applying to community colleges. The issue is cost. We offer a bucolic New Hampshire campus with sparkling new buildings (a new academic building and new dining hall just in the last four months), new high demand programs such as Game Design, smaller classes than our public peers, and a lot of individualized attention.

We will stop price escalation by challenging the long accepted models of how we should do business.

It's not enough. We have mirrored our peers and raised our tuition anywhere between four percent and seven percent year after year and our "all-in" (tuition, room, board, and fees) price tag of $35,000 feels far out of reach, even though 90 percent of our students pay less than that amount, often far less. And while those previous tuition hikes were necessary to pay for the amenities that students now expect (food courts and climbing walls and single rooms are now a norm), the expanded programs we offer, and hefty scholarship support to needy families, those tuition increases have felt excessive to a public that may have reached its breaking point in terms of willingness to pay.

The model is broken and yet so much that we associate with a college education -- that a degree requires four years of study and 120 earned credits, that undergraduate life is also about fraternities and teams and dorm life, and that a faculty member with a terminal degree, usually a PhD, is inherently the best educator -- is becoming unsustainable. These assumptions and more have driven up the cost of educating students across higher education and those costs are now excessive.

Also important is what we will not do. While controversial, we decided this year to buck a trend and not pursue AACSB accreditation for our School of Business. While that specialized accreditation is becoming more common and brings additional prestige, our analysis revealed that it would redirect more than $2 million per year to activities and priorities that showed no demonstrable improvement in the experience of students.

We have also had to work smarter and with more urgency than is typical of non-profits. We engineered a 15-year renewable energy agreement that not only made us the first carbon neutral campus in New Hampshire, but more importantly, gave us predictable energy costs going forward. We have hired key staff out of the for-profit sector to bring its expertise in data-driven operations to key areas of what we do, while not emulating that sector's poor academic practices. We now focus on value-proposition, not just cost, knowing that "education for its own sake" is no longer good enough for our families.

The accepted hallmarks of quality in higher education have been too long accepted without question and much that is not related to actual learning has driven up costs in both public and private colleges and universities. A university education - broadly defined and variously delivered - is increasingly the difference between the haves and have-nots in our society. If we are to reach President Obama's 2025 goal of 60 percent of adults with post-secondary degrees, we need to more redefine what we do, focus on imaginative approaches to access, and rethink what constitutes quality.

Paul J. LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University.

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