Exchange Problem

Professors at five liberal arts colleges in the Northwest lament end of a full tuition benefit for their children.

February 15, 2012

When Bradford Dillman’s daughter gets ready to go to college in 2016, she  will have to do it without a key benefit that children of faculty and staff at the University of Puget Sound have enjoyed for years, a tuition exchange policy that guaranteed free tuition at four other private liberal arts colleges in the Northwest and at Puget Sound if admitted.

Professors are upset because they see the program as one of their most important perks, especially at a time when other benefits have become more expensive or are being whittled away.  “It closes off a very valuable opportunity for my children,” said Dillman, an associate professor of international political economy. “There could be a high cost to this.”

The Northwest Independent Colleges Tuition Exchange program was founded in 1982 and included five members: University of Puget Sound, Reed College, Whitman College, Willamette University, and Lewis and Clark College. The program allowed children of faculty and staff members to attend  one of these colleges tuition free upon admission. Administrators from the five institutions, who would ostensibly also benefit from the program, said that it is no longer effective because of sizeable differences in the number of employees at each university, with the larger colleges having more employees and therefore more children who can participate.

“Over the past years these imbalances have grown to the point where a number of colleges are unable to send students to or receive students from one or more participating (schools),” said Gayle McIntosh, executive director of communications at the University of Puget Sound. Colleges get credited when they bring a student on, and the institution gets a certain number of semesters as credit and vice-versa. If the balance with another institution reaches a debit of 30-semester differential, the college is then unable to send a student to the other college.

For example, no member college has been able to send new students to Whitman since the fall of 2010, while every institution except Whitman is on “hold” with one other university, said Ruth Wardwell, assistant vice president of communications at Whitman. Currently, the program serves about 40 students. It will stop accepting new applicants after fall of 2015, though existing students in the program can still use the benefit.

Faculty members at the colleges have been signing petitions and protesting.

Sammy Basu (no relation to the author of this article), an associate professor of politics at Willamette, said news of the program ending felt like a betrayal.

“As a faculty member, one accepts and joins an academic institution having made a good faith estimate of the long-term career and quality of life prospects at that institution (i.e., salary plus benefits relative to other institutions),” he said. For Basu, one of those benefits was what he thought to be a robust tuition exchange program, even though he did not have any children at the time.

“I have two daughters, now aged 9 and 13, heading to middle school and high school respectively…. Needless to say, having one's children attend a solid academic institution (other than one's own) in one's region is an optimal scenario, and over the years I had assumed that an effectively run and promoted exchange program was in place to ensure that a healthy number of spots would circulate,” Basu said.

Regional programs aside,  Basu and some others will have the option of similar national programs, and those are growing.

The biggest of them is Tuition Exchange, which has 618 colleges with 5,900 students taking part. Robert Shorb, executive director and CEO, said membership had risen to 618 from about 350 in 1992. “In the era of shrinking budgets, this has become an attractive program,” Shorb said, with the size of the program allowing for more flexibility. Students participating in Tuition Exchange can benefit up to $30,500 per year or full tuition if the cost is less than that. Colleges pay a $350 fee to join, and decide their participation level. “They can export one student or a hundred students, and then import (bring in) one student or a hundred students,” Shorb said. “The bottom line though is they have to keep imports and exports in balance over the most recent five-year period."

Another program, run by the Council of Independent Colleges, has 400 colleges serving 1,500 students. A “full-tuition benefit” is the prime draw but it is not always guaranteed upon admission. Some colleges, especially ones in Florida, fill up fast, said Edward J. Clark, director and senior adviser of the program. “But we have plenty of openings,” he said.

Faculty members at the Northwest colleges pointed out that the national programs are more competitive and do not have the same guarantees. Still, three of the five institutions belong to the national Tuition Exchange program, including Willamette, Puget Sound and Lewis and Clark.

Efforts to continue the Northwest Independent Colleges Tuition Exchange program haven’t gained traction.

In May 2011, professors at Puget Sound sent a petition to President Ron Thomas asking the university to look at a solution and possibly revive the “exchange” system. “People have made critical financial choices around the assumption that the five-college consortium would be in place and working effectively, and now find themselves scrambling with little time left to adjust their plans,” the petition said.

Thomas said in a note to employees last year that the needs and circumstances of the five institutions are far too different, including variation among schools in the number of years of employment required for eligibility, and that student interest was adding to the imbalance.

When the consortium went about axing the tuition exchange program, other regional models were examined, such as the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. ACM’s tuition exchange program had faced similar challenges and a decision was made in 2004 to restructure it.

“The structural change was to move to a system where the exporting campus paid the importing campus something like the real net tuition income that would have been paid for an unaffiliated student,” said Jim Swartz, a professor of chemistry at Grinnell College, one of the member institutions. The importing college has to provide tuition remission if a student is admitted. Before the restructuring, the importing campus provided the education free. “Thus they had an incentive to not provide tuition remission,” said Swartz, who was part of the restructuring committee.

Institutions in the Northwest consortium are looking at new benefits. At Puget Sound, one plan that has been talked about would involve the university paying 75 percent of the university's tuition costs to a consortium school that a dependent might choose. Whitman is exploring an amendment to the college’s existing tuition grant program to provide a benefit similar to the old program. An official at Reed College said faculty and staff members can always make use of an available alternative: a program that pays up to two-thirds of the tuition of dependents at any college, anywhere in the country.

But faculty members remain upset, and one Puget Sound faculty member has started circulating a call for a response that would include a boycott of graduation ceremonies.

Basu said he was dismayed at the decision to end the program. "As a matter of principle, the collapse of the program looks like a unilateral revision of what were previously, at a fundamental level, mutual terms,” he said.


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