U. of Dayton Plans to Show Prospective Students the Full Cost of a Degree

January 18, 2013

What if students were told upfront how much they would have to pay for an entire degree? That question was posed back in October as part of The Chronicle's "College, Reinvented" project.

At the time, Sundar Kumarasamy was interested in letting prospective students know what their bottom-line price would be for four years at the University of Dayton, where he is vice president for enrollment management and marketing.

While a number of colleges promise new students the same sticker price for four years, Mr. Kumarasamy wanted to push the idea further, offering a locked-in net tuition—what students would owe after any grant aid. And he wanted to highlight the importance of graduating on time.

That idea is now becoming a reality. Dayton's board approved Mr. Kumarasamy's plan this past fall and signed off on the details of his approach this week. Starting in March, all admitted students who have filed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid will receive a letter laying out four years of expenses, grant aid, and financing options.

"I was very excited and encouraged by the support and vision and how forward-thinking the board was," Mr. Kumarasamy said. Now that he has the board's endorsement to try something new, he said, "I hope to God it works." Ideally, families will see the information as more helpful than scary.

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities has been keeping a list of private colleges' efforts to promote affordability, such as tuition cuts and freezes, but the group has not seen anything quite like what Dayton is doing, said David L. Warren, its president. "They're being creative, and they're being transparent," he said.

Bill Tahy, the father of a prospective student, heard in advance about Dayton's plan. "I think it's a great idea," he said. "With the rising cost of tuition, it helps you plan and prepare."

For most students, the letter will show a constant net tuition cost for four years. That means the university won't expect them to pay more each year and will hold them harmless for any cuts in their federal or state grant aid. Net tuition will go up only for full-paying students, who are a small fraction of the student body, and they will know in advance how much it will rise. For all students, Dayton is doing away with fees.

Each family's letter will detail the grants and scholarships that bring the tuition cost down to the individual net amount. The document will also note estimated housing and food expenses to show a "total billable cost."

The letter will include nonbillable costs, like transportation, to show the full cost of each year of college. And it will list work and loan options that students could use to pay.

'Reassuring' Information

Presenting information in that way is a big service to families, said Mark Kantrowitz, a financial-aid expert who looked over Dayton's document at the request of Mr. Kumarasamy. "It's not as if people are planning to go for one year and then dropping out," Mr. Kantrowitz said.

A constant net tuition will make it easier to plan for the whole expense of a degree, he said. "I think families will find that reassuring."

Still, Mr. Kantrowitz said, maintaining a four-year net price might be challenging to pull off. Dayton will be less able to raise tuition to make up for unanticipated expenses, he noted, and it will most likely have to charge students more for their first year than it would in a world of annual increases.

That could put Dayton at a competitive disadvantage. "The college is being very brave," he said, "in presenting and committing to this."

As it stands, the letter leaves out some important details, said Mr. Kantrowitz, who is known as a financial-aid watchdog. He wishes it would include the terms of each loan, as well as a projected total borrowing amount and monthly repayment.

Holding net tuition level should make it easier for a college to estimate a student's total debt, he said. It's not as simple as adding up the total available loans and multiplying by four, though, because families will ideally use savings and earnings to pay part of the cost before turning to loans. All colleges, he said, should find a way to emphasize to families that they don't need to borrow the full amount available.

Mr. Kumarasamy has already made a few changes in Dayton's letter based on Mr. Kantrowitz's feedback. The university will now clarify that families have the choice to borrow less than the listed amount. And with two months before the letters go out, Mr. Kumarasamy expects to keep tinkering, trying to give families the best sense he can of how much they'll have to pay.