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.