Dropping tuition by 62%, this small college becomes more ‘transparent’ on pricing

Colby-Sawyer takes the rare step of dropping its published cost in hopes that it can change perception for students concerned with affordability.

Recognizing that its current published tuition price of $46,500 could be a barrier for prospective students, Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire is taking the unprecedented step of dropping it by nearly $30,000, or 62%.

The new price is $17,500, making it far more accessible in searches and competitive both against other private institutions and publics in New England. Although Colby-Sawyer had done well to meet the financial needs of students, with 100% of them receiving some form of aid, officials felt the step was prudent as questions of affordability and cost in higher education persist.

“Our high listed price means we often don’t get the chance to tell prospective students about our financial aid programs, much less help them become students who find their voices, develop their passions and become active learners and confident scholars, artists, writers, scientists, critical thinkers and community leaders,” Colby-Sawyer College President Susan Stuebner said. “Our published pricing can also cause confusion or stress for current students who may worry about cost and aid packages from year to year. By guaranteeing a new, lower tuition, we want to make it clear that a Colby-Sawyer experience is possible for any student who wants to call us home.”

The goal for 185-year-old Colby-Sawyer, which has a little more than 1,000 students, is to be more transparent, while also showcasing its expanding degree programs around nursing, social work and exercise science. There are two big factors at play in the decision – one is that Colby-Sawyer has balanced its budget four straight years, a great achievement for a small college during the pandemic, and two, that its endowment has doubled over that stretch to more than $62 million thanks to the generosity of donors.

“It is because of them that we are now able to guarantee all students will start with a $17,500 tuition, along with continuing to offer further aid, ensuring that generations of students will have the opportunity to explore, connect and make a difference in the world,” Vice President for College Advancement Daniel Parish said.

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Could Colby-Sawyer’s bold move be a harbinger of potential resets for other institutions as they seek to gain more applicants and boost enrollments? Or will the pattern of high starting points, deep discounting and large outlays of merit and need-based aid continue? Some institutions have dabbled in reduced tuitions for low-income students or those from underrepresented groups, but setting that published bar like Colby-Sawyer is rare. During the pandemic, at least 11 colleges did lower their rates, according to a report from Forbes, including some by 50%.

By contrast and because of inflation, many institutions are moving in the other direction. A recent report from digital news provider NJ.com showed that only two universities in the entire state have kept tuition level for 2022-23. The average listed price, including fees, is more than $58,000, an increase of 3%. NJ.com cites the example of Seton Hall University – a 4.4% increase that is balanced out by more than $150 million in aid to students. Students who attend Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, even down to Williams and Amherst, receive on average more than $50,000 in grant aid to offset tuition and fees that aren’t much above that.

Lowering tuition – let alone dropping published pricing – has been taboo for most institutions, as financial aid has poured in and as perceptions that cost and selectivity go hand-in-hand. Because of a lack of budging on tuition and fees, many organizations with ties to higher education, and some politicians, have called for the doubling of Pell grants. President Joe Biden has that as one of his goals in his fiscal budget, though some opponents say increasing grants will only lead to institutions raising tuition further. Inflation has added another wrinkle, as even boards representing public institutions such as those in Iowa are increasing tuition as they ask for millions more from the state to offset costs

While some haven’t decided to lower published rates, they’ve opted to keep tuitions level and let students know they are looking closely at rising costs. That includes the Board of Regents of the Texas A&M University system.

“We recognize there is inflation for running universities, but there is inflation on families and students as well,” Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp said in a statement. “We’ve decided to manage our costs rather than raise tuition.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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