To attract students and families turned off by the potential for six-figure tuition bills, a growing number of private colleges are taking a page out of the retail playbook: They are cutting their prices.
Most recently, Seton Hall University announced that it would offer tuition discounts of up to 66% for academically qualified students, joining more than a dozen schools across the country that have announced similar programs in the last few months. Some schools, like Seton Hall, are offering straight-up tuition discounts for qualified students. Others are rolling out three-year degree programs that allow students to, effectively, cut their tuition bills by 25%. Still others are guaranteeing tuition won't rise while a student is in school. The most generous of the programs can whittle the price of private college -- $27,000 per year -- to less than $10,000.
For many of these schools, the discounts and breaks are part of an effort to raise their national profiles and to attract a broader pool of applicants. Selectivity and acceptance rates are an important part of national college rankings -- the more students apply, the lower the acceptance rate, the better the ranking. And the schools that peg their discounts to academic performance are also potentially raising the quality of their incoming freshman class, which also factors in those all-important rankings.
At the same time, students and parents have become far more cost-conscious, particularly in recent years. Two out of every three college graduates carries student debt, and a high unemployment rate has made it harder for parents to help, and for students to pay back loans. Colleges say they've been cutting costs all along, but are now ready to try new tactics to lessen the burden for students and their parents. "Some institutions, independent of financial pressures, are saying we want to think in a more creative way," says David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Of course, the discounts still don't make private colleges particularly affordable -- at least, not compared to in-state public school tuition. At an average cost of $7,600 per year, that may still be the more financially sound move for some families, says Rod Bugarin, a former financial aid officer at Brown and Columbia universities. There can be other drawbacks, too: If a student doesn't stay academically eligible for a discounted program, costs may spike; accelerated degree programs can mean extra nights in the library and losing a year of the college experience.
Here's a rundown of the new tuition discounts and deals private colleges are rolling out.
Some schools are cutting the sticker price for all students or offering discounts to specific groups of students, including those who are academically qualified or in a particular major.
Tuition and fees*:$15,360
Discount: This year, working adults who return to school to complete a degree in the school's "inSPIRE" program qualify for a 25% discount, bringing tuition and fees down to $11,600 annually.
Discount: Starting in the 2012-13 academic year, the university will offer a 50% discount on tuition and fees to freshmen who enroll in its School of Education. The discount will be in place for all four years the students are in the program. Education majors will pay about $14,000 less next year than students in other majors.
Sewanee: The University of the South
Discount: The school approved a 10% reduction in tuition and fees across the board for the 2011-12 academic year.
Seton Hall University
South Orange, NJ
Discount: Starting next year, the school will award a $21,000 discount for early applicants who graduate in the top 10% of their high school class and score at least 550 on the math portion of their SATs and at least 550 on the reading portion or an ACT score that's 27 or higher.
*Except where noted, tuition figures include tuition only for a full academic year. Data from schools' publications and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Three-Year Degree Programs
By offering an accelerated program that allows students to to graduate in three years, colleges essentially give students the opportunity to cut their bills by 25%. For the discount, students trade another year of the college experience.
Winona Lake, Ind.
Discount: Starting this year, the college will offer a three-year degree in more than 50 areas of study. The school estimates the amount of money the students will save on tuition, plus what they'll earn by entering the workforce a year early, will lower the overall cost of college by around 50%.
Discount: As freshmen, Lesley undergrads can declare their intent to graduate in three years, but they must still complete 120 credit hours (the same as for a four-year degree). To do so, a student would probably end up paying for summer classes or more than 18 credits per semester, but the discount would still be considerable.
St. John's University
Staten Island, N.Y.
Discount: This year, St. John's launched a three-year degree program at its Staten Island Grymes Hill campus. The annual cost is higher than the cost for four-year students ($38,500 compared to $33,125), but the overall savings is about $17,000.
The cost of tuition has increased on average by 4% each year for the last three years. That means families' costs continue to rise as a student moves from being a freshman to a senior. Now two colleges have announced programs to freeze tuition costs for incoming freshmen.
Discount: Tentatively set to begin in the fall of 2012, the college has announced a new tuition plan that will keep the tuition a freshman student pays unchanged for five years.
St. Mary-of-the-Woods College
Terre Haute, Ind.
Discount: Starting this year, this women's college guarantees that tuition for incoming on-campus students will be the same for four years. That tuition will still go up for the class of 2015 -- this year tuition costs $26,872, about 7.2% higher than what returning students paid this year.
Four-year Graduation Guarantees
These colleges say they'll waive tuition costs for students who need more than four years to graduate.
Discount: Starting next year, the school will roll out a "four-year graduation guarantee" program: For eligible undergrads who don't graduate within four years, the school will cover the cost for the extra time they need to finish coursework.
Discount: Starting next year, incoming full-time freshmen who meet certain requirements, including declaring a major by the beginning of their sophomore year and maintaining good grades, are guaranteed to graduate in four years. If it takes them longer, the university will cover 100% of the tuition and fees for as long as the student needs to complete his degree.
Discount: Starting this fall, the college guarantees that eligible full-time freshmen with good grades will graduate within four years. If not, the college will waive tuition costs for courses needed to complete the degree.
Discounts for Locals
Two private schools in Illinois are dropping prices for locals.
Discount: As part of its "Illinois Back to Work" program, the school will cover tuition and fees for students older than 25 who have been unemployed for at least 18 months -- after state and federal aid is exhausted.
Discount: For freshmen who graduate from high schools in Evanston and Chicago, Northwestern is adding scholarships and grants and eliminating loans and required work-study jobs. The school says that could save a student $30,000 over the course of four years.
Public University Tuition Match
Discount: To compete with public colleges, Northland will lower its costs to match the cost of the "primary public university" of the student's home state. To qualify, high school students must have a B average or better and come from a family with an annual income of less than $150,000.