McQuiston: College

Jan 29, 2016

When your college kid’s on break, occupying your sofa, your TV, your car and your fridge, you might be ready to pay any price to send him back to school.

Or maybe not.

So far, you’ve made the finances work for whatever school you’re sending him to. But wherever that might be, the cost is nearly impossible without spending every dime you have and leveraging every future dime he might make.

You’ve filled out the FAFSA and its new cousin, the CSS profile, if you’re unlucky enough to have to – since the CSS forces you to reveal every asset you have, liquid, real estate, bank, under the bed.

The cost of college and the paperwork that goes with it seem never-ending. But there just might be a sea-change coming.

When the high school population is growing, colleges can simply increase enrollment to increase revenues. But not now. A declining number of college-aged students and increasing costs are forcing colleges to find alternative ways to attract students. Already, on-line courses are taking the edge off some degree programs. But the big cost of residential higher education is still a massive, ivy-covered wall most families are facing.

In some cases, like at the University of Vermont, more high-end students are turning to less expensive public schools – resulting in a windfall for UVM and others of that class of public university. Their application numbers are still robust and the students are higher achieving. The current freshman class at UVM has the highest SAT scores in its history.

And as enrollment drops in colleges across the country, different strategies are emerging.

Now, two very small colleges in Vermont have decided to use money as a recruiting tool.

Burlington College is chopping its tuition by 9 percent - down to around $21,000.

Marlboro College is using its relatively strong endowment to increase scholarships to turn around its own loss of applicants, while keeping its tuition at less than $19,000. If these numbers still sound like a lot - remember that the US private college average is $33,000 per year.

What Burlington and Marlboro are doing is an aggressive first step. Maybe we’ll see other incentives, like no-interest loans or cash-back plans, similar to those offered by car manufacturers.

But one thing’s for certain: something’s gotta change or our small, private colleges will begin to disappear.