Few area colleges bucking trend of increasing tuition

Posted: Sunday, August
17, 2014 7:00 am
At least three area colleges are bucking the trend of tuition increases with one college reducing tuition for new students and two others holding the line, according to a
Herald-Mail Media survey of 12 colleges and universities in the Tri-State area.

Wilson College, a private liberal-arts college in Chambersburg, Pa., has cut tuition for new students by 17 percent, while Kaplan University-Hagerstown and the University of Charleston’s campus in Martinsburg, W.Va., have held tuition steady for the upcoming school year.

The national trend has been for tuition to increase, though the 2.9 percent increase for in-state tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities for the 2013 – 2014 school year was the smallest percentage increase in more than 30 years, according to the College Board’s 2013 Trends in College Pricing report. The College Board has not yet issued its report for this year.

The 12 institutions informally surveyed by Herald-Mail Media included two-year and four-year public and private colleges and universities.

Those institutions were Hagerstown Community College, Kaplan University’s Hagerstown campus, Penn State Mont Alto, Shepherd University, Shippensburg University, the University of Charleston’s Martinsburg campus, Wilson College, and the five universities that provide undergraduate course s at the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown. Those five institutions are Coppin State University, Frostburg State University, Salisbury University, Towson University, and the University of Maryland University College.

Some institutions included fees in their costs and others did not, while some listed tuition costs by credit hour or per semester or year.

Most affordable

Based on a basic comparison of tuition for the equivalent of a full-time student attending year-round, Hagerstown Community College is the least-expensive option.

For a student taking 12 credit hours a semester, over two semesters, HCC will cost from $2,640 a year in tuition for a Washington County resident, $4,128 a year for a Maryland resident outside of Washington County, and $5,424 a year for an out-of-state resident.

The community college along the east side of Hagerstown increased tuition by 2.4 percent for out-of-county Maryland residents to 2.8 percent for Washington County residents. Tuition for out-of-state students increased 2.7 percent.

Despite the tuition increase, HCC is still a “bargain,” spokeswoman Beth Kirkpatrick said.

“When you look at what we offer and we’re fully accredited, so everything transfers, (we’re) very much on par with university levels,” Kirkpatrick said.

HCC is getting the same amount of funding from the county, $8,965,010, as it did last fiscal year, while receiving $8,640,301 from the state — a 7.24 percent increase in funding, according to HCC budget figures.

HCC officials decided on modest tuition increases to help cover increasing expenses such as health care and other personnel costs, according to Kirkpatrick and budget figures.

The community college’s enrollment has continued to increase, with 7,101 students in 2013, compared with 7,024 students in 2012 and 6,850 students in 2011, according to figures Kirkpatrick provided.

Reducing tuition

Wilson College, a private college, is the most expensive option of the 12 institutions, based on tuition for a full-time student.

However, the college has cut tuition by $5,000 or 17.4 percent, to $23,745 a year, for new students, college officials said.

Wilson has frozen tuition for returning students at $28,745 for the third straight year, but is guaranteeing returning students that they won’t have to pay more $23,745 for tuition, said Mary Ann Naso, vice president for enrollment.

That guarantee is possible because of scholarships and other financial aid, said Linda Brittain, dean of financial aid. This past year, Wilson’s students received about $12.4 million in financial aid.

If a student brings in “outside scholarship money,” Wilson reduces the loan portion of financial aid, but does not reduce any portion of Wilson’s financial aid package, Brittain said.

“And that doesn’t happen at very many colleges,” she said.

While Wilson College is trying to boost enrollment — in part by expanding its coeducational program to include male residential students this school year, President Barbara Mistick said the decision to cut tuition and hold the line for returning students is “a commitment to value and affordability.”

Wilson’s primary market is middle-income families and their incomes are declining, so college officials want to make Wilson more affordable for more students, Mistick said.

Approximately 46 percent of Wilson’s students are first-generation college students, she said.

The financial aid process can be “incredibly complex. It’s complex for us, (who) are in it every day and know it,” Mistick said.

The college also endorsed Mistick’s idea for a debt buyback program, starting with this year’s incoming freshmen.

To be eligible, students must remain and complete their four-year education at Wilson, as well as perform community service, officials said. The maximum buyback is $10,000 toward a student’s federal Stafford Loan, and the amount depends on the student’s final grade-point average, according to a news release about the program.

The debt buyback program also encourages students to complete their degree in four years so they will not have to pay tuition for a fifth year, Mistick said.

While Wilson has not yet released enrollment figure s for this fall, college officials said recently that applications had doubled.

Mistick said the college was on track to enroll its largest class in the past 40 years.

Wilson had 662 students last fall for its undergraduate, graduate and continuing education programs, with 308 of those students being traditional undergrad students, Wilson spokeswoman Cathy Mentzer said.

In the past, Wilson officials have noted the need to increase enrollment for the college’s fiscal stability.

Asked if Wilson was in danger of closing its doors, Mistick said it was not, but that college officials are making moves, like going fully coed, to boost enrollment to help sustain the college in the future.

Holding the line

Tuition didn’t change this year for Kaplan University—Hagerstown or the University of Charleston, which opened a Martinsburg campus in January 2013.

Kaplan University—Hagerstown is holding tuition steady for the second straight year.

The per-credit cost at Kaplan remains $371 for its undergraduate programs, with the loan exception being the new bachelor of science in nursing program that starts this month and costs $315 per credit hour, according to Business Development Manager Heather Guessford.

If a student were attending full-time, or basically year-round by taking 12 credits each of the four 10-week terms in a year, the annual tuition would be $17,808 for many undergraduate programs, Guessford said.

Chris Motz, president of Kaplan’s Maryland campuses, said college officials held tuition costs steady “because we’re mindful college costs are … really getting out of control” and college officials are “sensitive to reducing student debt.”

Kaplan is a private university, so it doesn’t receive county and state subsidies, Motz said. Kaplan has tried to keep its costs the same in recent years in order to avoid increasing tuition, he said.

The last tuition increase was in 2012, and Kaplan officials already have decided not to increase tuition in 2015, Motz said. Any tuition changes take effect with the change of the calendar year rather than the typical school-year calendar, he said.

Like at other colleges, scholarships help reduce student debt, Motz said.

During the last year and a half, 75 to 80 percent of new students have received some kind of scholarship, Motz said. In addition to having scholarships available for academic achievement, the college has a scholarship for single parents and offers discounts to military personnel, Washington County Public Schools employees, and Meritus Health employees, he said.

The University of Charleston is maintaining the $320-per-credit-hour tuition for undergradstudents who attend classes in Martinsburg, according to an email from college spokeswoman Carrie Stollings.

“As a private institution, we are not impacted by the state funding cuts,” Stollings said.

The University of Charleston is only offering one undergrad course, in addition to graduate courses, this fall in Martinsburg, Stollings said. Those courses, including the undergrad organizational leadership course, will be taught at the National Guard Armory, she said.

The university will no longer be offering classes at the former Mountain State University facilities because of a settlement agreement between Mountain State and former students. The University of Charleston had taken over the defunct Mountain State campus in January 2013, but now Mountain State has to sell its real estate to provide settlement funds, according to a University of Charleston news release.

Increasing tuition

For many state colleges, tuition increases were needed to offset state funding cuts or were the result of a system wide decision.

Shepherd University’s state funding was reduced by 3.75 percent, according to an email from Shepherd spokeswoman Valerie Owens. It was the second straight year for state budget cuts that affected the university in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

The tuition increase for Shippensburg University, like other state colleges and universities, was determined by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, Shippensburg spokesman Peter Gigliotti said.

The state system’s board members approved a tuition increase that “essentially matches next year’s projected rate of inflation of about 3 percent,” according to a July news release.

For Shippensburg, tuition was increased by 2.9 percent, according to its tuition schedule.

Shippensburg offers discounted rates to out-of-state students who are majors in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and to “high-achieving” students. For freshmen, that means scoring at least 1,200 on the SAT or graduating in the top 10 percent of their class, according to Shippensburg’s tuition information. If students qualify, the per-semester out-of-state tuition is $5,968, which is $1,705 cheaper.

Penn State Mont Alto increased some of its tuition rates, including those for freshmen and sophomores, by 1.2 percent.

Mont Alto spokeswoman Debra Collins said the college made an effort to avoid unnecessary expenses and minimize increases to students without making the quality of the programs suffer.

The college is a research institution so it does need to provide research equipment, and other expenses went up such as health care, gas and housing, she said.

While the campus is grateful for the state’s support, college officials “understand it’s hard now,” Collins said.

“Affordability is really important to us, but we still have to provide a high-quality education,” she said.

The University System of Maryland’s board of regents announced in May that, with the exception of Salisbury University, tuition for Maryland residents would not increase by more than 3 percent, according to a university system news release.

The university system has appreciated the state’s support, which included an increase in funding in the mid-2000s that allowed the university system to hold the line on in-state tuition for four years, university system spokesman Mike Lurie said.

When the university system needed to increase revenue to help pay for the increasing costs of running the various institutions, the state provided funding so the tuition increase was 3 percent rather than 5 percent for in-state residents, Lurie said.

Those annual 3-percent tuition increases kicked in for the 2010-2011 academic year, according to Lurie and historical tuition information available at the university system’s website.

Salisbury’s in-state undergraduate tuition increased by 3 percent that first year, but then went up by 6 percent a year as part of a series of rate adjustments “to reach market parity,” according to a university system news release and tuition data.

Lurie said that, historically, Salisbury’s tuition level was considerably lower than other compatible institutions in the university system and the nation.

Betty Crockett, Salisbury University’s vice president for administration and finance, said the tuition jumps aren’t just about market parity.

“According to the Maryland Higher Education Fiscal 2015 Budget Overview, SU is the lowest-funded public institution in total education and general revenues per full time equivalent student, which is essentially the combination of tuition and state appropriations,” Crockett stated in an email.

To provide the “quality it seeks to offer,” including more financial aid, Crockett said the funding difference needed to be made up, to some extent, with tuition increases.

Out-of-state undergrad tuition increases, for the state universities offering courses in downtown Hagerstown, were limited this year to 5 percent, except for Towson whose increase was 1 percent, the university system release states.