How to Cut College Costs by $5,000

Colleges that lock tuition at the freshman rate can save parents thousands

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As many colleges announce painful tuition hikes for the coming academic year—about $2,500 at UCLA, about $1,000 at the universities of Virginia, Georgia and Washington—students and parents at a few dozen other colleges don't have to worry about tuition inflation.

[Read about other ways to protect against tuition inflation.]

That's because all public universities in Illinois and at least nine private colleges around the country guarantee entering freshmen that their tuition prices won't rise during their four years. Of course, these schools do typically raise other fees or costs, such as dorm and cafeteria charges, every year. Plus, they raise the tuition they charge each successive freshman class.

Colleges typically offer "tuition guarantees," "tuition locks," or "truth in tuition" programs to to attract students and parents worried about paying for college.

But guaranteeing not to increase prices, when professors want annual raises and health insurance premiums keep jumping, can be costly to colleges. The College of St. Joseph, in Rutland, Vt., which launched a tuition guarantee program in 2009, figures the college gives up—and parents save—about $5,000 in tuition increases over a student's four years.

As the economy and investment markets tanked in recent years, some colleges decided they couldn't afford to give up that revenue, and scrapped tuition guarantee programs. (Colleges are honoring commitments made to previous classes, of course.) After just three years, public universities in Georgia stopped offering flat tuition to freshmen entering in the fall of 2009, for example. Pace University and Central Michigan University decided they could no longer afford to shield students from tuition price hikes in 2007.

Fixed-price colleges often try to make up the costs of the no-price-increase guarantee in other ways. Tony Pals, spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents private colleges, notes that many fixed-tuition colleges "have to increase tuition for each subsequent freshman class at a higher-than-average rate."

In addition, there are typically a few strings attached to limit colleges' losses. Most only guarantee flat tuition for entering freshmen for four years, for example, so students who take extra time eventually have to pay higher rates.

Some of the fixed-tuition colleges are also some of the most expensive. George Washington University, for example, has been one of the nation's priciest colleges for years. Its 2009 tuition of about $40,000 was about $15,000 higher than the average private college's tuition last year. The total cost of attendance, including books, living expenses and travel, for freshmen entering in 2010 is nearly $56,000 for those who receive no financial aid. (That scenario applies to only about half of GW students. GW reported to the federal government that 53 percent of its undergraduates receive grants, averaging a little more than $22,000 apiece.)

Other fixed-price colleges, such as the public universities in Illinois, however, remain comparatively affordable. And parents can hope that more colleges will consider adding the option. Susan Englese, admissions dean at the College of St. Joseph, said her college adopted the program in part because a few other small, private colleges that made similar promises, such as Hiram College in Ohio, believe the guarantee attracts more students. "Families are becoming really good consumers" about college now, Englese says. She has noticed parents of prospective students touring the campus often ask how much they should expect tuition to rise. The guarantee that parents won't have to worry about tuition increases for four years "helps us stand out," she says.

[See the list of colleges that guarantee level tuition for a fee.]

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