Students & Parents | Costs

A Revolutionary Idea: Cutting Tuition

WASHINGTON EXAMINER   |  May 29, 2011 by Edwin Williamson

How about a 10 percent cut in tuition?

In a day when college costs defy gravity as a rule, it sounds like a fantasy. But the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., recently cut tuition by 10 percent, creating quite a stir. Academic pundits have debated whether there is any substance to this move, or whether it is a cynical publicity stunt. Let me assure you that it is a substantive, serious move.

As an alumnus and former governing board chairman of Sewanee, I am exceedingly proud of this initiative, led by our new Vice Chancellor John McCardell, and I hope that many other schools soon follow suit. McCardell’s plan evinces a commitment to principles too often missing from academia: candor, transparency and fairness.

The tuition cut is a commitment to candor because it acknowledges that the trend in private education costs is unsustainable—a bubble left unpricked by the 2008 crash. Private education institutions cannot continue their rate-of-inflation-plus tuition and fee increases.

It is a commitment to transparency because private education pricing is too opaque. It resembles the system found in the market for new automobiles, whose sticker price is only the beginning of a negotiating process. Although discounts are based to a small extent on need, schools and administrators often justify them on the basis of “merit.” But they are not telling the truth. Discounts are really based on whatever amount of traffic the market is producing. Sewanee is getting out of that business.

Finally, the tuition cut is a commitment to fairness. The cynics say that a strong institution would not have to cut its tuition and fees: if it is strong, it could fill its spaces with plenty of qualified full-tuition payers. That may be true, but Sewanee does not want to fill its places with only those who can afford it regardless of the price. It wants to include those on a budget who can make the most of its quality education.

My hope is that Sewanee’s clarion call for a sustainable level of private education costs will help to refocus the conversation where it should be focused—on identifying schools that provide real educational value.

For too long, the discussion about higher education has virtually ignored education, relying on rankings like U.S. News & World Report’s that focus on what students bring rather than on what they take away. They are not valid, and, yes, they raise costs.

Isn’t it time that changed? In its What Will They Learn? project, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has done just that: grading more than 750 academic institutions on the basis of whether they have rigorous core requirements for their students in composition, literature, U.S. history, a foreign language, mathematics, economics and a science. Of the top 14 liberal arts colleges ranked by U.S. News, eight received Fs from ACTA.

When it comes to providing educational quality: Sewanee has a story to tell. Its core curriculum earns a solid B from ACTA—requiring all of its graduates to study composition, literature, a foreign language, math and a science. It has the fifth-highest graduation rate among all similarly graded schools.

What’s more, it offers real value in terms of class size and the number of professors in the classroom. Unlike many top-ranked schools, Sewanee’s professors—more than 98 percent of whom have Ph.D.s from top institutions—actually teach, rather than relying on teaching assistants (generally graduate students). The faculty-to-student ratio is 1-to-10. “Publish or perish” requirements that diminish teaching excellence do not apply; indeed faculty members teach three classes per semester. And classes are kept intentionally small—the vast majority enroll fewer than 20 students.

McCardell was president of Middlebury College for 13 years. He understands that most schools, Middlebury included, will continue hitting students and their families with tuition increases that exceed the inflation rate. And he understands that in the distorted world of higher education, too often consumers have equated a big price tag with quality.

He is betting that parents and students are finally realizing that a reputation based on a U.S. News ranking and a high price tag does not assure a quality education. Parents and students are reading the unrelenting spate of reports and books showing that students aren’t learning much and yet are leaving college burdened with debt.

We are betting that parents and students will vote with their applications for schools like Sewanee that are serious both about learning and about making costs affordable. We think institutions that fail to make such a commitment are in for a big surprise.

Edwin Williamson, a Washington resident, is a retired partner of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP and a former U.S. State Department legal adviser.


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