Augustana College is announcing today that tuition will increase by 3.9 percent for the 2009-10 academic year. While the percentage is the lowest for the college in 25 years, what may be more notable than the size of the increase is when it is being announced.
Private colleges typically announce tuition increases in December and January and sometimes later for the following academic year. For many public colleges and universities, tuition increases are tied to legislative sessions and so can easily come still later in the academic calendar.
The idea behind announcing much earlier is that some families may appreciate certainty over college prices at a time that so many other economic trends are full of question marks. "We typically announce in January or February," said Steve Bahls, president of the Rock Island, Ill., liberal arts college. But knowing that many parents were worried about college expenses even before the current economic crisis, and that the turmoil on Wall Street has added to that worry, he said that college officials think that many parents and students "want assurances" about some spending.
Bahls acknowledged that there is "some risk" in announcing early, in that the changing economy might make the college want to rethink some of its assumptions for the next year. And he said that the risk factor was the chief issue explored by the college's trustees before they decided to proceed with a vote on tuition on Friday. Bahls said that the college's success at a fund-raising campaign ($92 million raised so far toward a $100 million goal) and a record enrollment of 2,500 gave the board comfort that it could go ahead and commit to a figure.
Currently, total costs (including tuition and room and board) at Augustana are $37,800 for first-year and transfer students and $35,721 for continuing students. The percentage increase will be applied to both groups. Last year, the college approved a substantial increase for new students  but also created a program that will provide a $2,000 grant during their junior or senior year for use on study abroad, independent research, unpaid internships or other educational experiences.
Bahls said that while conventional wisdom has always held that tuition announcements should come later in the academic year, the experience of preparing for a decision much earlier has left him thinking it is something that could be done routinely. "A lot of parents are concerned about their jobs and net worth," he said. "We can tell them something about our costs."
James A. Boyle, president of College Parents of America, called Augustana's move "very smart."
For many families, he said, price matters. "Right now many parents are confused about what the cost will be," he said. "They see published figures and it's not necessarily made clear that the figure is for the current year and if and when it will change." So even if parents don't like the total figure, it will be "welcome news" to have certainty on the price. "That transparency makes a lot of sense," Boyle added.