For most college undergraduates, earning a degree is an increasingly expensive proposition. Consider that in the two decades between 1995 and 2015, tuition and fees for most colleges grew between three and five times faster than the rate of inflation. Costs jumped 179% for privately run universities listed in the U.S. News list of best colleges, far outpacing the 55.1% increase in the consumer price index (CPI). Out-of-state tuition at government-provided colleges rose at an even faster rate of 226%. The fastest increases occurred for in-state tuition costs at government colleges, which saw 296% higher tuition in 2015 than 1995.
Fortunately for some students, a few colleges are bucking the trend and slashing tuition costs. Rosemont College in Pennsylvania announced a 43% tuition cut in September 2015. During the same month, private Utica College in New York announced a 42% cut. Other schools trying to make college more affordable include Wilmington College in Ohio, the University of Washington and Alabama-based Stillman College.
One reason Rosemont and Utica — and other colleges announcing major cuts — can afford drastic tuition reductions is because the listed price, or "sticker price," for many schools is much higher than what families actually pay. According to a survey from the National Association of College and University Business Officers, students and their parents pay 48% less than the full tuition price at private four-year schools, with grants and applied discounts filling the gap.
Rosemont College, Pennsylvania
Rosemont College is a very small liberal arts college — less than 1,000 students — approximately 10 miles away from downtown Philadelphia. The school's sticker price for the 2015-2016 school year was $31,520, which was already competitive in the private liberal arts space. However, the school board announced a dramatic cut for the 2016-2017 school year down to $18,500, along with a reduction in room and board expenses from $13,400 to $11,500.
According to the school's estimates, the average net savings for a returning undergraduate student would be $815 year-over-year. The reason why savings are projected to be much smaller than total cuts is because the school is also reducing its discounts. It effectively went from a high-price, high-discount school to a low-price, low-discount school.
Utica College, New York
The listed tuition at Utica College during the 2015-2016 year was $32,620, but that figure fell to $19,996 for the 2016-2017 year. Located in Mohawk Valley, Utica College has a small undergraduate population but claims its nearly $15,000 per year cut in costs is not a consequence of weaker enrollment demand. Utica President Dr. Todd Hutton told a CNBC interviewer the school experienced "15 straight years of record enrollment" prior to the cut.
Stillman College, Alabama
One school did slash costs to attract more students: Stillman College in Tuscaloosa. Starting in the fall 2015 semester, full-time attendees at Stillman received a $5,000 cut from $22,500 to $17,500. This 22% reduction received some criticism for threatening funding for the athletics programs at the small private school — Stillman College jettisoned every athletic program except men's and women's basketball.
Stillman President Peter Millet lamented the cut in programs, but ultimately signed off. "Without a doubt," he said, "this was the most difficult decision I've had to make during my entire professional career." He later added, "Something had to be done."
Wilmington College, Ohio
Returning students at Wilmington College in Ohio saw their tuition drop from $28,420 to $23,800 before the 2015-2016 year. The $4,620 decline in sticker price was designed to sustain a large incoming freshman class and to enable less-fortunate students to keep learning. "We're very excited," said President Jim Reynolds. "In order to make this experience more accessible to students, we need to make an adjustment to our tuition."
University of Washington, Washington
The top public research institution in Washington state slashed tuition by 5% before the 2015-2016 school year and 10% before the 2016-2017 year. This is welcome news for the nearly 30,000 undergraduate students who attend the University of Washington, home to 16 academic colleges and 180 major programs. These cuts were not an isolated incident, as all public colleges and universities in Washington state reduced tuition by the same amounts. Estimated savings for the average student were $540 during the first year of cuts and more than $1,500 for the second year.