Colleges pull back tuition increases as pressure to manage costs mounts

In a normal year, many colleges would raise tuition by a few percentage points to keep pace with operating costs. 

But this is not a normal year. 

The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged institutional finances, muddied enrollment projections and created a question of whether students can return to campus this fall.

And so, despite their budgets being stretched, some college leaders are foregoing planned tuition increases, citing the strain on students and families. As colleges’ finances come into clearer view this summer, experts predict more institutions will cancel proposed tuition hikes or walk back those they’ve already approved. 

The 10-campus University of California (UC) System was one of the first to back away from a planned tuition increase, EdSource reported. New freshmen would have seen a nearly 5% tuition hike from what students paid the previous academic year, and subsequent classes would have been subject to similar increases. The system’s governing board said moving forward with the plan would be inappropriate given the economic turbulence the pandemic has created but added it could be revisited, according to the publication.

Then, in early April, Ohio Wesleyan University announced it would nix a 3% tuition increase for the coming academic year. Its president said the private liberal arts school wanted to support students and families during an uncertain time.

Shortly after, Bucknell University, in Pennsylvania, canceled its 3.5% increase. Most recently, William & Mary College, in Virginia, reversed a 3% tuition markup for incoming, in-state undergraduates.

Tuition has climbed at public and private colleges for decades. Despite calls to keep pricing steady in the name of affordability, many institutions declined to do so amid lagging state support and new operating expenses. Some colleges and systems moved to freeze tuition shortly before the pandemic hit in the U.S., and the health crisis has forced others to reconsider. 

“In the last few months, most colleges have lost much of their pricing power,” said Robert Kelchen, a higher education professor at Seton Hall University, in New Jersey. “The only colleges that can raise tuition right now are the very wealthy, very elite institutions.”

Reasons for abandoning the increases now are myriad. Colleges are already concerned students won’t be able to afford school because of the economic crisis, and they recognize that upping their price may prevent some from attending. However, Alex Bloom, associate director of research at consulting firm EAB, doubts whether many students would opt not to return because of a tuition increase. The pandemic limits their options, he said, because travel and other activities are restricted.

“You can’t take a gap year to do the things you wanted to do, and it’s hard to substitute a job for education,” Bloom said.

‘They don’t want to pay as much’

But administrators also remain uncertain whether face-to-face classes will resume come fall. While many colleges say they intend to reopen campus, California State University announced it will be mostly online for the next term. As the largest public system in the U.S., its decision could spur others to do the same. 

College students have signaled their dissatisfaction with distance learning. Some have sued their institutions for tuition refunds, arguing that the quality of education they are receiving remotely doesn’t match what they paid for, which included in-person campus services and activities.

Raising tuition during a time when students may be unhappy is unwise, Bloom said.

“Students were mostly willing to give their institutions a bit of a pass on how things went this term. They recognized (the schools) were adapting to a new normal,” he said. “But (students) believe they’re paying for the residential experience, which they can’t have, so they don’t want to pay as much.”

Colleges are under pressure on multiple fronts to keep tuition flat. Students have protested against tuition increases, such as at Emerson College, in Massachusetts, and so have legislators. California Gov. Gavin Newsom was opposed to UC’s plan to raise rates even before the pandemic. 

New York state Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, who chairs the legislature’s higher ed committee, wrote to the City University of New York (CUNY) System last month asking its board of trustees to rescind an approved $200 tuition increase and a new $120 wellness fee, which will pay for health services on the CUNY campuses. Both were vociferously opposed by students.

Stavisky wrote that the tuition increase will largely be absorbed by campuses given the number of students receiving financial aid. But the health fee will directly impact students, she explained.

Asked to respond to Stavisky’s request, CUNY spokesperson Frank Sobrino wrote in an email that the system’s trustees and Office of the Chancellor are closely tracking the pandemic’s effects on its budget.

“They continue to assess how best to respond to ever-changing challenges while keeping the best interest (of) students at the center of every decision,” Sobrino wrote.

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