Colleges slashing tuition, offering 3-year degrees

@CNNMoney March 22, 2012: 1:07 PM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- A growing number of colleges are taking extreme measures to attract more students by cutting tuition or speeding up the rate at which they graduate.

While some private colleges are introducing double-digit percentage cuts in tuition or freezing prices altogether, other schools are offering three-year degree programs or four-year graduation guarantees.

In part, these schools are responding to consumers' concerns about the rising cost of college, said Tony Pals, spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "These types of initiatives have been used to some degree in the past, but have become increasingly prevalent since the economic downturn -- and we expect to continue to see them spread," he said.

But colleges have their own motivations as well. By offering a more competitive price, they are ultimately hoping to attract more students -- and increase their bottom line, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of financial aid website Finaid.org.

"This is about boosting enrollment, local competition and improving an individual school's finances rather than any noble purpose," Kantrowitz said.

While making school more affordable for students has become more common, it's still far from a widespread trend. Many more schools continue to hike tuition, he said. Overall, tuition at private colleges has been increasing more than 4% each year for the past three years, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Tuition at a discount: After seeing enrollment decline for the first time in a decade, the University of Charleston, in West Virginia, cut its tuition by 22% to $19,500 per year.

In addition, Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Lincoln College in Illinois, and Pennsylvania's Cabrini College have all slashed tuition by at least 10% for the upcoming academic year.

5 colleges slashing tuition

But there's a tradeoff: "Temporary tuition cuts and freezes are usually accompanied by financial aid cuts -- so the money isn't all going back to students," Kantrowitz said.

The University of Charleston, for example, may be slashing tuition but it's also reducing the amount of financial assistance that's available to students to $10 million from $15 million.

Instead of making cuts, other schools are freezing tuition at current levels or giving students four-year tuition guarantees.

For the upcoming academic year, Burlington College in Vermont is guaranteeing it won't increase tuition for four years. Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts is also holding tuition steady -- its first tuition freeze since 1968.

"[C]olleges and universities cannot continue to threaten access and add to already burgeoning loan burdens for students," Mount Holyoke president Lynn Pasquerella said in a statement.

Pals said at least 14 additional colleges have frozen tuition for the upcoming school year -- the highest number of tuition freezes on record.

Other colleges are joining forces with community colleges to increase enrollment and lower costs for students.

Baylor University in Texas, for example, is offering a pilot program this fall where students can take most of their classes at a local community college for a year or two before transferring to Baylor, where they will eventually graduate.

Texas students enrolled in the program that take 12 hours at McLennan Community College and three hours at Baylor will pay about $20,000 per year -- less than half of Baylor's $45,000 annual cost, including tuition, fees, and room and board.

A degree in four years or less: With average tuition at four-year private colleges costing $28,500 a year, according to the College Board, failing to graduate on time is a costly proposition. As a result, some colleges are reducing the time it takes to graduate or guaranteeing that students will get their degree in four years.

Beginning next year, Ashland University in Ohio is granting bachelor's degrees that can be completed in three years instead of four -- saving students an estimated $34,000 in tuition costs and giving them a year's head start in the work force.

College 101: Everything you need to know

Ohio's Baldwin-Wallace College is introducing a "Four-Year Graduation Guarantee" program this fall. Under the program, the school guarantees that students who meet certain requirements, like maintaining a GPA of 2.0 or higher, will graduate in four years. If not, the college will pay for the extra time.

Some colleges are taking it a step further by offering joint-degree programs that allow students to graduate with both a bachelor's and master's degree in four years. Simmons College in Boston is offering joint-degrees in areas including social work and public policy, while Wilson College in Pennsylvania is launching a program that lets students graduate with both a bachelor's and master's degree in humanities.

Meanwhile, Lipscomb University in Tennessee is reducing the number of credits students need to take to graduate on time from 132 hours to 126 hours for the 2012 school year -- the equivalent of about two classes.

How much does college actually cost?

While tuition cuts and freezes likely won't have an impact on the quality of the education that the colleges provide -- unless enrollments increase so much that the student-to-teacher ratio climbs too high -- some fast-tracked degrees are another matter, Kantrowitz said.

"If you eliminate core requirements to become more job-focused, it may allow you to cut a semester off, but the purpose of core requirements is to teach the very basic skills like the ability to write and read critically that also have an impact on job performance," he said.  To top of page

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