Friday, March 2, 2012

The right questions about cutting tuition

Mount Holyoke announced recently that it would not raise tuition for the 2012-2013 academic year. The announcement drew the typical coverage--some meandering thoughts about college cost and boilerplate assurances from the institution itself that it is dedicated to responding to rising college costs and making its brand of education accessible to a broader public.

That is all well and good, but if we are going to take the cost of college seriously, then the institutions who freeze or cut tuition and the people who write about them need to get much more serious about explaining the contexts and purposes of their decisions (as do the people who raise tuition, but that is for another post).

At the very least, any reporter covering the announcement of a tuition freeze or cut should ask the following:

  • Is the reduction in tuition costs accompanied by reductions in institutional aid?
  • Is it accompanied by changes in enrollment goals, or put another way, are you making up the difference by enrolling more students?
  • How do you expect the reduction of tuition to effect the school's revenue in the coming year?
  • Are you reducing expenditures in the coming year?  If so, which ones?  What are you doing with faculty and staff salaries?
  • Do you really believe that a reduction in tuition makes your school accessible to students who would not otherwise be able to afford it?  What evidence do you have?
  • What steps are you taking to ensure that the quality of the education you provide improves?
  • Why cut tuition instead of doing other things to reduce costs to students--i.e. speeding up time to graduation, reducing room and board costs, enrolling more transfer students from community colleges, increasing funding for students to work on campus?
Absent answers to these questions, I can't help but think that a tuition freeze or cut is more about publicity than improving access, reducing cost, and ensuring an excellent education to all students.


David Feldman said...

This is spot on. A cut in list price, coupled with a reduction in institutional aid (holding spending per student constant) would reduce access. It would essentially transfer resources from poorer students to middle and upper income students. The incoming class, of course, is not static. A school could shift admission away from students with need so as to reduce the demand for institutional aid. And this reinforces the idea that reductions in list price are largely about publicity. If you don't know what else is going on in the admission/spending process, you have no way to evaluate what the school is "achieving" with its cut in the list price.

Anonymous said...

For Mount Holyoke, the announcement of a tuition freeze is very little but a publicity measure. Your questions are legitimate, Gary, but they don't capture the situation at Mount Holyoke, the nation's oldest liberal arts college for women. Very few students, and certainly many fewer than students at colleges with which MHC likes to compare itself, pay full price. The College has been struggling financially for years, only barely hanging on to its identity as 1) elite, 2) liberal arts, 3) all women's. The statement from the Higher Ed piece on the latest "tuition freeze" is inaccurate on most counts: "an elite college such as Mount Holyoke, which faces no shortage of demand, a strong financial position, and a large number of students who can pay the full sticker price." The sad truth is that the College is no longer elite (It has slipped from the top 10 or 15 to somewhere in the 30s in the last decade and a half. (Not that rankings matter, but they do.) It is no longer able to attract the best American female students, most of whom do not want to attend an all women's college. And it has slipped behind its peers in endowment and quality. I don't think the College has reduced the aid it provides, and it does do and has been doing several of the things you mentioned: accept transfer students from community colleges, let people speed up the clock, and so on. It has also increased the teaching loads and decreased salary raises, with the expected effects on faculty morale. Another tactical, (but hardly strategic) move, has been to enroll great numbers of international students, the plurality of whom come from China. Currently, the percentage of international students is around 23%. These students bring revenue and high scores. They also bring changes in culture, for good and for bad. MHC has a powerful PR machine that is good at turning its problems into virtues. Thus the College continues to be portrayed as an elite, international College that serves many underprivileged (but always brilliant!) women. If only more seventeen year old girls and their parents, especially those able to pay $41,000 in tuition, bought this message. So yes, a tuition freeze can mean different things at different places. At Mount Holyoke, it is a symbolic gesture that will achieve very little of substance.