cost of college

As a recent Mercedes TV pitch entices, “the best or nothing.”

Like the price tag on a luxury car or a Tiffany diamond, the sticker price of a college is somehow linked to the perceived value of that education. And who doesn’t want the best for their children? But the best… or nothing? That perception is limiting, and some colleges are making moves to flip the script on this notion.

While, historically, colleges have consistently raised prices in concert with competitor schools, while simultaneously providing institutional discounts to offset that higher sticker price, some colleges are trying to counter this trend and reduce their prices directly. How do schools do this? Here are some practices private colleges are using to stand out to applicants and make themselves more competitive with their public university counterparts.

Tuition Resets:

You may or may not have heard the term tuition reset before. Essentially, it is a price cut. This is not a new idea; it is usually a one-time event, and whenever a college or university resets tuition, it gains lots of publicity for the school.

The University of Detroit Mercy dropping tuition to 2008 levels.

Birmingham-Southern College is reducing its tuition and mandatory fees by more than 50 percent starting in fall 2018.

Beginning fall 2018, Mills College is reducing tuition by 36% for all new and returning undergraduate students.

In the current higher education environment, when students feel like they can’t afford a particular school, they likely go elsewhere and don’t even apply. With a tuition reset, the hope of the college is that the institution gets lots of publicity and students will give the now seemingly more affordable institution a second look during the college application process. Typically, the small numbers of schools that are employing this strategy are struggling and many have financial troubles. The real question for families is: will the tuition reset actually save them any money? Many of these same schools reduce the amount of merit aid available. Finally, in cases where the resets aren’t sustainable by the college, the tuition creeps back up over time.

Tuition Freeze:

This is when a college keeps tuition the same for a number of years (typically four years for a class of students.) Back in 2013, the University of Dayton, for example, promised their incoming class that they would keep the net price stable and students would be able to lock in costs for the entire four years of their education. This type of price stability is a compelling argument for some families looking to make sense of higher education costs. A fixed price is certainly more understandable and helps families plan for the big picture of their child’s education. From a college’s perspective this pricing model may be more sustainable over the long run.

A Shorter Degree:

In some European countries, an undergraduate degree is only three years. Compare that to the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree that is widely available in the United States, and you have an obvious money saver for students. Some examples of institutions that have initiated the three-year model following the 2008 economic downturn include: Wentworth University, Babson College, Bay Path College, University of San Francisco, New York University, and Southern New Hampshire University. While this accelerated model may save money, note that it often comes with costs in terms of your educational experience, though some colleges insist that students can complete a degree in three years without giving up study abroad opportunities or the ability to pursue internships.

Alternative Credentials:

My 12-year old daughter has already earned her first two digital badges that measure her competency on some basic Salesforce skill concepts. My husband has earned over 200+ badges to date. Digital badges are one example of “alternative credentials” that many students are using to adapt to a changing workforce and move up in their careers. Badges are maintained online, and students can provide employers with a virtual transcript of their accomplishments. Some traditional colleges are considering alternative credentials as an area of development and growth, and a way to complement their more traditional academic offerings to students.

In a nutshell, more families are changing the way they view the question of college affordability. They are no longer viewing college in terms of whether or not they can afford the next four years. Instead, families are increasingly and questioning the value of the next four years (and beyond, if borrowing for that education). Colleges are gradually responding to this more value-conscious consumer, and marketing their institution less as a luxury good, and more as a diamond in the rough.

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Written by Robyn Stewart
Robyn Stewart is a member of College Coach’s team of college finance experts. Prior to joining College Coach, she worked as a former financial aid officer at College of the Holy Cross.