Colleges prioritize affordability for first-year students

Institutions are developing programs to reduce costs for first-year freshmen and transfer students

Federal legislators last week approved a plan to restore year-round student Pell Grant eligibility, addressing the growing problem of limited higher education access that spiked in 2011, but will now expedite college completion for more than 1 million students taking courses this summer.

The bipartisan policy reversal comes as colleges and universities across the country are seeking ways to help students enter and stay in school. Across a variety of missions and sizes, schools are working to sell higher education to a student pool that is shrinking, growing older and earning less than it did just 10 years ago.

Much of the institutional work of affordability focuses on reducing ancillary costs for textbooks, remedial and elective courses, and encouraging completion in four years.

Time to completion

A recent study from NerdWallet.com suggests that spending two extra years in college can cost students more than $245,000 in lost wages and retirement savings, in addition to the extra expenses associated with taking more clases. Historically black colleges have taken aggressive steps to improve time-to-completion outcomes, to combat growing concern about their collective 35% six-year graduation rate.

To address the time-to-completion issue, Virginia State University launched its "Trojan Advance" initiative this past spring, offering incoming freshmen and transfer students summer classes for $199 per course. The program, piloted in 2013 for general education offerings, now offers additional three-hour credit courses in select majors, and promises students who complete the courses with a “B” or better a rebate of $100.

Officials say the program helps first-year students acclimate with the college workload and offers seniors a chance to earn credit hours that otherwise would cost more and delay graduation  and in some cases, graduate school admission or employment.

“With the price of education at an all-time high, VSU wants to accommodate students with a summer program that helps them financially and academically, while also rewarding good grades,” said Virginia State President Makola Abdullah.

At Howard University, more than 1,000 spring graduates were the first to receive a 50% tuition cost rebate for their final semester, refunded under a new program rewarding students who met graduation requirements in four years or less.

“We talk about student debt a lot in this country, but a part of the problem is students taking five or six years to graduate,” Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick told The Washington Post. “The goal here was, in part, to give some incentive to finish on time. And to show that as an institution, we’re not just interested in you getting an education, but we’re also interested in you getting a very good start.”

Tuition rebates are quickly becoming a tool of choice for institutions and systems hoping to spur four-year completion. In April, higher education officials in Massachusetts approved a plan to offer community college transfers into public institutions a 10% refund for every semester completed with a 3.0 grade point average or better.

Community building to encourage completion

At the University of Texas at Austin, officials say developing community support and belonging around students is a key tool in retention and completion. The UT University Leadership Network, which enrolls 500 students from each first-year cohort, offers merit-based scholarships and programming to encourage four-year completion.

The Texas Interdisciplinary Program, which focuses on at-risk students learning in the College of Natural Sciences and launched by a professor in 1999, was among the first programs on campus to use predictive analytics based upon student profiles, and spots environmental factors that could impact completion.

“For every extra year a student spends in college, it’s an average of 60,000 in loans and lost income,” said UT Spokesperson Joey Williams. “Increasing the four-year grad rate is a big focus at UT, and through historical data analysis we know that to increase the overall four-year rate means helping students who need it most, those who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and first-generation students. UT has developed a lot of programming targeted to help these students  not just financially, but also culturally and socially to adapt and feel like they belong here.”

Reducing associated educational costs

In November, Florida’s 28 public community and four-year colleges agreed to take part in a ‘Ready, Set, Work’ initiative, which challenged schools to ensure 100% job placement within one year of graduation for students exiting its top two most popular degree programs. The initiative was a precursor to the state’s College Affordability Act, requiring all institutions to publicly disclose their tuition and education cost reduction strategies for digital textbook provision and online learning options implementation.

Florida Senator John Legg, who helped to sponsor the legislation that became the College Affordability Act, said transparency about the cost of college resources is important to help families make decisions about education options.

“College affordability is one of our top priorities, where students can graduate with a quality education without being burdened with heavy debt. It’s important that colleges and universities provide the resources students need to completely understand the costs of classes and materials.”

Community colleges in Virginia and Maryland are piloting open-source learning material options that could save students more than $1,300 per semester in textbook fees in business administration, computer science and social science courses. Officials in Virginia’s community college system say that the initiative decreases costs and attrition due to costs, and with expansion, could save its 100,000 enrolled students more than $3 million in ancillary spending.

According to a recent study from the College Board, tuition and fees accounted for 39% of the total budget for in-state students living on campus at public institutions in 2015-16, and 20% for community and technical college students who pay for housing.

Filed Under: Higher Ed Policy & Regulation