gold trophy on red background

by Shannon Vasconcelos, former financial aid officer at Tufts University

February’s here, and in Hollywood, that means awards season—the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, and the Oscars—and a chance to celebrate the best films of the year. Now, maybe this year spent in quarantine has affected our brain chemistry, but, here at Bright Horizons College Coach, we’re beginning to think we could give Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie a run for their money on the red carpet. Therefore, we’ve decided to break out the virtual glitz and glamour, and launch our own contribution to awards season. Over the next week, we will celebrate the best and brightest in the world of college admissions and finance

For our first award, we will honor colleges that have made significant strides toward increasing the affordability of their institution over the past year.

In the college affordability category, the nominees are:

Davidson College: In an unprecedented move announced last spring, Davidson allowed families to defer payments of their Fall 2020 tuition until August of 2021. While not necessarily increasing their long-term affordability (and, in fact, one could argue that this move made it a little too easy for families to get in over their heads in tuition costs), the flexibility allowed time for families suffering short-term economic impacts of the pandemic (stock market volatility, job furloughs, and small business interruptions) to recover and get their finances in order without interrupting their child’s studies. Davidson also announced a tuition freeze for the 2021/22 school year and re-affirmed its commitment to a “no loans” financial aid policy.

Beloit College: In the early days of the COVID pandemic, months before most colleges announced their fall plans, Beloit introduced a number of initiatives meant to support students academically and financially throughout the pandemic, including their Midwest Flagship Match. This program guarantees that students from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin enrolling in Beloit for the Fall 2020 semester and beyond will pay no more in tuition than they would for their in-state flagship public university. They later announced that any Beloit students enrolled for the 2020/21 school year could enroll for 9th and 10th semesters completely tuition-free in order to take advantage of educational opportunities that may not have been available to them during the pandemic.

Seattle Pacific University: This fall, Seattle Pacific kicked off a chain of tuition resets at small private universities by announcing an across-the-board 25% tuition cut for the 2021/22 school year. Tuition resets bring advertised sticker price more in line with the net price typically paid by families after scholarship and grant discounts. While the average student may not pay any less under a tuition reset, the cut in tuition costs increases transparency in a college’s pricing and allows families to get a closer understanding of real costs prior to applying to the college and applying for financial aid. In addition to their reset, Seattle Pacific implemented its own flagship match program and placed a cap on future tuition increases.

Southern New Hampshire University: Long a leader in online education, allowing students to keep full-time jobs while earning their degrees, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, SNHU decided to bring its commitment to affordability to its on-campus students by offering a full-tuition scholarship for every on-campus student enrolled for the 2020/21 school year.  They also committed to accelerate an existing plan to reduce on-campus tuition to $10,000 beginning in 2021, a 61% reduction from its 2019/20 rates.

Boston University: Before the pandemic even hit, when lots of colleges scrambled to address affordability to maintain their enrollment, Boston University announced a new financial aid policy, committing to meet the full demonstrated financial need of every student they accept beginning with the 2020/21 school year. This adds BU to the short list of 79 colleges (including fellow nominee Davidson) that make this guarantee of financial aid funding. BU also awards “no loans” packages to Pell Grant recipients and Boston public school graduates, and not only guarantees stable scholarship funding for all four years, but guarantees that, if tuition increases, your scholarship will increase at the same rate.

While we are thrilled with all of these recent changes in policy that further our nominees’ commitments to access and affordability, we recognize that the above are just a few examples of many similar adjustments taking place at hundreds of colleges across the country and we applaud all such efforts. Still, we are required to pick a winner.

And, so, the award goes to….

Boston University!

Though the competition was stiff, and we love the transparency provided by tuition resets, the fact is that while tuition setting at $50,000, $30,000, or $10,000 matters greatly to middle- and higher-income families, the distinction is less meaningful for lower-income families for whom any and all of those tuition rates are out of reach. The guarantee recently instituted by BU to meet full financial need based upon individual family circumstances creates access for even the neediest students, and also tackles room and board costs, a need left unaddressed by tuition-specific freezes, cuts, and matches. Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, the author’s past experience as a financial aid officer at Boston University, counseling many students whose financial need was not met and begrudgingly helping them take on unreasonable levels of debt to attend the university, leaves her particularly excited for this change in BU’s policy and increased commitment to affordability.

And, for the record, it is not lost on us that every nominee above is a private college, who, in a competitive college landscape, has, to some extent, been forced to think creatively about affordability measures due to market pressure from much lower cost public universities, particularly during this economic crisis, when families have been thinking harder about the value they’re getting for their tuition dollar. Public universities have always offered students—particularly in-state residents—excellent educational options at affordable (relatively speaking) prices.

In recognition of this fact, we’d like to award a lifetime achievement award to:

Every. Public. College. In. The. Country: These colleges, both 2-year and 4-year, have largely maintained their commitment to affordability in the face of extreme economic pressure and, often, state budget cutbacks. Special recognition goes to the states of California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Hawaii, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Washington, and Wisconsin, who have all decreased the average tuition at their four-year public colleges over the past five years, and to the many states who have recently instituted free community college programs for their residents. Keep up the good work, and continue to keep your focus on how we can make higher education accessible to all.

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Written by Shannon Vasconcelos
Shannon Vasconcelos is a college finance expert at College Coach. Before joining College Coach, she was a Senior Financial Aid Officer at Tufts University and Boston University. Visit our website to learn more about Shannon Vasconcelos.