Sticker shock is probably not adequate to describe what students and families are experiencing while shopping for a private college. The average cost of tuition and fees nationally has risen by 144% at private colleges over 20 years. In 2021-2022, the average annual cost for private colleges was $38,185, more than three times the national average for tuition and fees at public universities, which have also climbed. Those cost increases far outpace inflation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which increased 54% from July 2001 to July 2021.
In NH, home to 10 private colleges and universities, tuition and fees before financial aid in 2020/2021 ranged from $15,380 at Southern NH University in Manchester to $43,910 at Saint Anselm College in Manchester and $60,870 at Dartmouth College in Hanover. These numbers do not even include room and board, books and other expenses, which increases the sticker price for Dartmouth to $81,501, Saint Anselm to $63,622 and Southern NH University to $36,006. The average cost at each of these colleges after aid is $33,023, $33,898 and $22,873 respectively. For comparison, UNH has the highest in-state cost of NH’s state-funded colleges and universities at $21,699, according to U.S. Dept. of Education data for FY21.
“Everyone is worried about affordability,” says Debby Scire, president and CEO at the NH College & University Council, a consortium of 21 public and private higher education institutions. “And the evidence is there. Jobs of the future require some post-secondary education and individuals [with degrees] will earn more than folks without degrees.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes workers with a bachelor’s degree earn a median weekly wage of $1,334—$525 more per week than workers without a postsecondary education, a difference of more than $27,000 annually.
The high cost of education has colleges and universities looking for ways to lower costs and attract students.
Colby-Sawyer College, a private college with about 750 undergraduate students in New London, will be cutting tuition costs from $46,364 to $17,500 for the 2023-2024 school year. This will reduce the overall published cost of attending Colby-Sawyer (which includes room, board and the student fees) from more than $63,500 to approximately $36,000—a 45% decrease.
The move to slash tuition at Colby-Sawyer came after its board of trustees and senior officers began looking at ways to remain competitive. “One of the factors we looked at is this demographic cliff that I’m sure you’ve heard about,” says Colby-Sawyer President Susan Stuebner, explaining that declines in birth rates along with fewer students going directly to college has officials focused on ways to create larger applicant pools.
Stuebner also cites a recent study by Sallie Mae indicating 80% of families looking at colleges will dismiss institutions solely on their sticker price and says the college wanted to be more transparent with their costs. “[Parents and students] see the listed price of tuition, room and board and sometimes won’t do any further research about programs, financial aid or scholarships that are available,” she says. “That was really concerning to us.”
Cutting tuition to attract more students and to reflect the actual cost is a national phenomenon, Stuebner says. In Massachusetts, Lasell University is lowering its tuition from $42,630 to $26,000 and room and board from $16,500 to $13,500 for the 2023-2024 school year. Lasell University President Michael B. Alexander said, in a statement on college’s website, “By aligning the published price more closely with the actual out-of-pocket cost that most students pay, and presenting information in a clear, concise, and easy to understand way, we believe the price reduction will expand, further diversify, and enrich the school’s vibrant community.”
Providing Aid Essential
Public schools have a lever to control tuition costs not available to private institutions: state support. Joseph Favazza, president of Saint Anselm, says relying on tuition, fundraising and the school’s endowment to create a budget that works is always a challenge. “It’s become even more challenging in a moment where we’re seeing rising costs due to inflation and more competition for students in the New England area as well as some students questioning the value of college at this point,” he says. “We have to work really hard when putting our budget together because we are tuition dependent. Without tuition we could not operate.”
To attract students, Favazza says private universities like Saint Anselm essentially provide tuition discounts in the form of need-based and merit financial aid to make the price more affordable and accessible for more students. “I wish I could say we can meet 100% of student need, but our endowment just isn’t big enough to help us do that.”
While Saint Anselm is not formally cutting tuition, Favazza points out it is happening on an individual basis. “There is not enough transparency about cost when parents and families are thinking about college,” he says, adding that every student that comes to Saint Anselm receives some sort of financial aid. “So, if you think about that, there is no one here that pays the sticker price.”
And that pricing structure can be difficult for some families to navigate. “The current model in private higher education is, unfortunately, a little bit like buying a car—there’s the listed price and then there’s the bargaining for a lower price. Because we have so many first-generation students who may not know the right questions to ask, they’re really at a disadvantage,” says Stuebner.
On the other hand, Favazza points to market studies showing that people sometimes connect high cost with quality. “The big question then is can you go to an expensive place and still make it worth it in terms of affordability through financial aid and grants and scholarships and things like that,” he says. “We
have a lot of people who are attracted to us because we are perceived as a high-quality institution.”
Stuebner says one of Colby Sawyer’s major goals has been to create a conversation with a broader array of students. So far, she says, the tuition cuts have proven to be beneficial. “We’re seeing students visit campus from different high schools than what we’ve had in the past,” she says.