For today’s enrollment manager, it’s nearly impossible to go a week without someone forwarding an article about another college trying a new way to describe the difference between its listed sticker price, the actual cost of attendance and the institution’s discount rate. The current funding model for higher education is broken and we can only blame ourselves for creating a norm of bargain basement pricing for those families in the know, opaque business models and unexplained annual increases based more on competitors’ current price tag rather than our actual campus needs. We continue to play a game of chicken as we wait for a so-called peer to do what we need to do.
On my own campus, we’ve been discussing this issue for several years and have yet to figure out what, if any, changes we should make, but we do know that honesty is a safe bet.
Gimmicks like so-called tuition resets and freezes, as well as “inflation +” models, are our industry’s desperate attempts to respond to critics and to try to appease the price police, when perhaps we should be discussing why we cost so much instead. These efforts are often undertaken in response to the chorus of calls for affordability, but they seldom illustrate for whom the experience will be more affordable.
Neither these efforts nor simply sticking with the status quo are acceptable over the long term -- families deserve additional information before they pay tuition or incur debt to cover campus costs. But any change has a substantial impact and cannot create spiraling financial scenarios for our campuses, either.
There are significant risks involved in changing how we discuss pricing, cost and value. Private colleges, as tuition-dependent institutions, are hesitant to try something new, especially if all of our peers stick with the currently murky language and approaches to cost and price.
As an industry, we need to work at getting it right for our students, which includes lowering actual costs for students and maintaining sufficient revenue to deliver on our mission. Meanwhile, we are muddling through how we describe our costs, often with too many apologies, and witnessing the shuttering of campuses across the country that didn’t find the right programmatic offerings, words or approaches to make themselves institutions of choice for students.
As best I can tell, there are no clear or easy solutions, but there are a few key elements we need to stress in future rhetoric and approaches:
A clear rationale for a new model. Families would benefit from an honest conversation with college leaders about why unfunded tuition discounting cannot continue at the current rate and why discounting has a negative impact on a college’s short- and long-term finances and bond rating. Further, colleges need to clearly describe their business model to their campus constituents, students and parents of current students and delineate how the annual operation is funded. Finally, leaders need to acknowledge that percentage increases in tuition costs cannot continue in perpetuity. At some point we will price ourselves out of the market and into bankruptcy.
Genuine reductions in cost to students. In too many cases, a clear illustration of exactly what has changed and how much less a student will pay is missing entirely from the launch of a new plan. Some institutions reference averages or scenarios for the financially neediest students while ignoring the middle class. Seldom is there a clear statement that all students will pay at least $XXXX less to attend the next year. I realize this is pretty tricky -- saying that the education offered is less expensive than the previous year -- but this is exactly what’s missing and why many of the efforts so far seem to miss the mark. Without a clear explanation to students and families of the financial benefits of a new model, colleges remain vulnerable to criticism that a new model really doesn’t change the cost of attendance to the student (a criticism that is fair in many cases). Colleges need to clearly articulate whether or not students will benefit.
Substantive changes to the business model and how we operate as institutions. One of the reasons many newly introduced models for calculating costs and how they are applied are viewed as gimmicky is because there is no clear explanation of what (if anything) has changed. Will changes in pricing result in a reduction of departments or student services? Is the college dependent on increasing the size of the student body to make up for lost revenue? Has the college become more efficient? Will the college open a new line of business to generate more revenue? How things will change is the key unanswered question, and our public is smart enough to want to know what changes -- and theoretically reductions -- will occur before they commit.
Sufficient marketing of any new model. While I’ve seen some clever YouTube videos and good press releases, strong marketing of a new model seems pretty limited. Some colleges don’t want to be seen “wasting money” on marketing when trying to prove to the world that they care about reducing costs to students. Additionally, many colleges view new models as highly risky, and they don’t want the hangover of a marketing rollout if it doesn’t work. However, the lack of a confident marketing plan results in most of these efforts being viewed as isolated, gimmicky or done with an ulterior motive, like lowering the price to attract more students because there is excess capacity to educate and house them on campus. An aggressive and comprehensive public relations and marketing campaign would have great benefit to a college if it really does want to transform the model and be a market leader.
Clear connection between price and return. Although there have been recent efforts to describe the return on investment of a college degree, historically speaking, connecting price with results and service has been inadequate at best and incredibly opaque at worst. There are so many questions to consider: What goes into a “comprehensive fee”? How does what a student pays for, and gets, differ from year to year in order to justify an increase or not? Are the services students receive as first-year students more comprehensive than as seniors? Should having a full-time faculty member as an adviser add value and cost? Colleges must do a better job connecting the price of attendance with what a student receives from year to year.
Even if a college committed to addressing these missing pieces, could it transform how we calculate cost of attendance for the student and the institution? I don’t know for certain. But a college that starts out willing to change the business model, reduce the actual price (and cost) for students, clearly describe what a student gets for what he or she pays, and aggressively market a new cost/price model -- that college would get attention. And that would be one of those articles forwarded to me that I would be interested to read.
W. Kent Barnds is executive vice president and vice president of enrollment, communication and planning at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Ill.
The University of California admitted about 1,000 fewer California applicants for the academic year starting this fall, while the number of out-of-state applicants admitted -- both from the rest of the United States and from abroad -- was up by a bit more than 1,000 each. University of California officials said that because they expect the yield (the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll) to go up, they project no decline in the number of Californians who will enroll as new students in the fall. The figures reflect a 0.3 percent decrease for in-state admissions, an 8 percent increase for out-of-state American applicants, and an 18 percent increase for international applicants. The numbers follow.
The University of California System is adding optional questions to undergraduate applications concerning sexual orientation and gender identity. While several colleges have adopted such policies, the university system's adoption of this approach will significantly expand the number of applicants who see such questions. The idea behind such questions is to allow colleges and universities to track their success at attracting, enrolling and graduating students from a range of sexual orientations and gender identities. The new policy is the result of a review to identify ways the university could become more inclusive. The university also announced that, starting July 1, all new construction projects or major renovations will include gender-neutral restrooms.
Atlantic Union College, which suspended operations in 2011 due to a financial problems and a loss of accreditation, is planning to again admit students into some programs, The Worcester Telegramreported. The Seventh-day Adventist college in Massachusetts has received help from its church to deal with debt and is seeking accreditation again.
Washington University in St. Louis has been widely criticized based on its relative lack of diversity compared to other colleges with highly competitive admissions and significant funds for financial aid. Many have suggested that the university's practice of offering generous scholarships to applicants with high SAT scores and grades, but not much real financial need, was responsible. The university announced on Friday that in part due to changes in admissions and aid strategy, the institution is seeking real gains in diversity of the freshman class, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Black students are expected to make up 9 percent of the freshman class, up from 5 percent a year ago. Latino freshman will make up 8 percent of the class, up from 6 percent. The percentage of low-income students is projected to be 11 percent, up from 8 percent.
Albright College, in Pennsylvania, announced last week that it is suspending operations of its campus in Mesa, Ariz. Albright cited lower than projected enrollments. Mesa recruited five private colleges to start operating a higher education center there, on the theory that they could attract students to programs that were already doing well at home campus locations. But enrollments have lagged. Westminster College, in Missouri, last year announced that it was pulling out of Mesa.
Wallace Hall, a controversial member of the University of Texas Board of Regents, has filed a suit in state court against the Texas system's new chancellor, William McRaven, The Texas Tribune reported. Hall has conducted investigations -- some of which have been verified by UT's own outside inquiries -- based on his allegations that officials at the Austin campus helped some politically connected applicants gain admission over the objections of admissions officers. UT's investigation did not go far enough, Hall says, in identifying which powerful people helped which applicants get in, and he wants that information. UT officials have said that they can't violate federal privacy requirements. "Chancellor McRaven believes that a regent's access to information is not above the law," said a statement from the university system.
Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer who killed 77 people in an attack in 2011, has again applied to the University of Oslo, The Local reported. Breivik applied previously but was told he was not eligible as he had not obtained a high school degree. Now he has. Dag Harald Claes, the head of the university’s politics department, told the newspaper Dagbladet that if Breivik is admitted, he will not be able to pursue a degree because five of the nine modules involve seminars and face-to-face meetings that Breivik could not join, as he is in prison.