As costs rise, private colleges tout affordability

bhenderson@charlotteobserver.comDecember 8, 2012 

As sticker shock over rising college costs mounts, private schools are turning innovative in efforts to boost enrollment and make college affordable for a wider range of students.

Belmont Abbey College President William Thierfelder cites a College Board survey in which more than half of college-bound students said they would rule out schools based on costs alone. The Gaston County school last month slashed its tuition for incoming freshmen in fall 2013 by almost $10,000, to $18,500 a year.

“I feel very strongly that a sticker price does not define the quality of the educational experience,” Thierfelder said.

He also decided the time was right to end the spiral of rising costs. Unlike many private schools that are losing students, enrollment at Belmont Abbey is at the highest point in its 136-year history. New buildings are going up, program offerings are expanding, and the faculty is strengthening.

Thierfelder hopes the tuition cut will make college accessible to a broader range of students.

“I’m hoping for the kind of diversity that we claim in our mission statement: that they come from all backgrounds,” Thierfelder said. “If somebody is looking for a nice, small liberal arts college, I’m hoping that we’re what they’re looking for.”

Colleges are labor-intensive places with growing demand for student services. They’re also cities-within-cities that face mounting health insurance, utility and food costs.

Tuition has increased faster than the overall inflation rate in recent years, the College Board says. State appropriations for public schools, in particular, haven’t kept pace with increasing enrollment.

Tuition costs at North Carolina’s public universities, boosted by strong state appropriations, are still among the lowest in the nation, but they rose 40 percent at four-year schools between 2006 and 2011. North Carolina’s private schools are just below the national average and went up 30 percent over those five years.

Nationally, in-state tuition at public four-year colleges and universities grew 4.8 percent this year to $8,655, the non-profit College Board says. Tuition at private, nonprofit four-year schools went up 4.2 percent to $29,056. Room and board adds $9,000 to $10,000 a year.

Raleigh’s William Peace University, formerly Peace College, cut tuition 7.7 percent this fall, to $23,700, and will freeze it at that level in 2013. Enrollment jumped 9 percent to nearly 800 students. The former all-women’s school, which went coed this year, hopes to reach 1,000 students in the next four or five years.

“Our goal is to increase enrollment in order to make up the difference,” President Debra Townsley said. “Students have been very appreciative in this economy.”

Peace also has revamped its academic programs, requiring students to take writing skills, personal financial management, and professional readiness courses to prepare them for the workplace. Peace says 90 percent of its students find jobs or go to graduate school within a year of graduation.

“Families certainly want to know what their investment is going to get,” Townsley said.

Davidson College decided in 2007 that no graduate should leave with debt from need-based loans. The initiative, called the Davidson Trust, would give the high-achieving students that the school attracts no reason to rule out Davidson because of its costs.

The result: More students get financial aid, with the proportion growing from about one-third of all students to about 45 percent. Davidson’s total financial aid budget grew from $18.5 million in 2008 to $34.7 million this year.

Davidson’s tuition, now $40,809, has gone up 57 percent in the past decade but is still the lowest of its 20 peer colleges. With room and board, it now costs about $52,000 a year to go there.

The Davidson Trust was created “in large measure to increase diversity, but the primary thing was to provide access to students so they could afford it and not saddle them with debt,” said Ed Kania, the school’s vice president for finance and administration. “Our graduates do everything from run Fortune 500 companies to missionary work. We didn’t want them to feel compelled to limit their career choices to pay back debt.”

Available aid

All of North Carolina’s 36 private colleges and universities are looking to save money, whether by improving energy efficiency or eliminating some degree majors, said Hope Williams, president of N.C. Independent Colleges and Universities.

Eighty percent of their students qualify for need-based aid, Williams said, and 40 percent qualify for Pell grants for low-income students. That’s despite tuition and fees that average $25,439 a year at private N.C. four-year schools – $3,600 below the national average.

Even so, Williams said, many families don’t take time to research what aid is available.

“They’re all looking for ways to help make it affordable for students,” she said. “We’ve had many students who thought they had enough financial aid, but when Mom or Dad loses their job, that changes everything.”

Wake Forest University began an initiative in 2011, the Endowment for Wake Forest Scholars, that replaces debt with grant aid. The goal is to eliminate nonfederal guaranteed loans, cutting loan debt in half for 1,000 middle-income students a year.

The university is seeking $100 million in donations to endow grants of $5,000 a year, making the school a possible choice for more students. A total of 127 freshmen and sophomores are already enrolled in the program.

Wake Forest costs $42,700, more than $58,000 including all expenses. About 38 percent of its students get need-based aid.

“Our hope is for the choice to attend Wake Forest to become a greater possibility for many remarkable students, and to preserve our heritage as a place of opportunity,” said Katie Neal, executive director of news and communications.

Henderson: 704-358-5051 Twitter: @bhender

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