In a desperate effort to attract warm bodies, liberal arts colleges have been discounting their tuition drastically for first-time freshmen, behaving more and more like rug sellers in an Arab bazaar. (I apologize if I made a politically incorrect observation.) For the past several years, the discount rate has gone ever upward; and last year, private liberal arts colleges discounted tuition for first-time freshman by nearly 50 percent! And they discounted tuition for undergraduates as a whole by more than 40 percent.
All commentators agree: this trend can't go on forever. And colleges can't reverse course by simply lowering their tuition rates because they would be admitting that they've been overbilling their clients. As one observer noted, if you've been selling Toyotas for $30,000 apiece, how can you explain why you now only charge $20,000?
But what about this? Why don't small private liberal arts colleges--the ones that still have good reputations--offer applicants free tuition for the first year to everyone who enrolls?
Think about it. Colleges have already cut tuition by 50 percent on average for freshmen, and they're still having trouble meeting their enrollment targets. And once they get the little rascals in the door, they still have to discount tuition by more than 40 percent.
If a college offered free tuition for freshman, there would be two good consequences. First, the college would get more applicants and a higher percentage of applicants who are accepted would actually enroll. And second, the college could be more selective because the overall quality of the applicant pool would improve.
Of course, such a move would have to be planned carefully. Here's how I would do it:
1) The college making the offer would promise to admit students based on published academic criteria--without regard to race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. Applicants would know that their credentials were being judged transparently based solely on academic considerations.
2) Students who accept the offer would agree to attend the college a second year and pay the full tuition price if the college didn't offer a sophomore-year discount.
3) Colleges making this offer would assign their best faculty members to teach freshmen so that students who enrolled would have a top-notch freshman year and thus would be more likely return as sophomores. No more crowding a couple of hundred freshmen into theatre-style classrooms to be taught by an inexperienced graduate assistant or a burned-out gas bag who should have never gotten tenure.
This is a risky strategy I know. But colleges are already charging freshmen half price, and many are still seeing their enrollments decline. If offering a free year led to a 50 percent bump in freshman enrollment, that would absorb a good deal of the cost of this strategy if those students could be retained as sophomores, juniors and seniors.
One thing for sure--college administrators are playing a losing game right now. They can't go on giving big tuition discounts to favored students using secret criteria that families don't understand. They can't rely on public relations firms, perky recruiters, and billboard advertising to juice their enrollments.
The public has figured out that a liberal arts degree from an obscure private college is overpriced. To bring back the paying customers, the colleges must offer value. What better way to communicate value than by giving new students a year of free tuition and then offering a first-class educational experience?
Or is that too simplistic?
Rick Seltzer. Discount rates rise yet again at private colleges and universities. Inside Higher Ed, May 16, 2016. Accessible at https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/05/16/discount-rates-rise-yet-again-private-colleges-and-universities.