Some recently reported figures on student retention at Kansas University again raise questions about exactly who reaps the greatest benefit from KU’s four-year tuition compacts.
In his Heard on the Hill column on LJWorld.com, Journal-World reporter Andy Hyland notes that, according to U.S. News and World Reports, a number of other colleges have started offering tuition compacts similar to the one initiated at KU in 2007. KU’s program takes four years of tuition, including predicted increases, divides that number by four to determine the average and then pledges to charge incoming freshmen that average tuition each year for the next four years. The guarantee means that the students will be paying a higher tuition rate than other students in their freshman year, but probably less than standard tuition by their senior year.
It’s been a popular program with parents because they know what they’ll be paying. Indeed, for freshmen who complete a degree in the allotted four years, the tuition pact probably is a good deal. Unfortunately, life often doesn’t work that way.
Hyland noted that by the end of 2007-08 school year, 21 percent of the freshmen had dropped out. Because they, like all freshmen, were required to participate in the tuition compact, they overpaid for their freshman year and won’t be eligible to re-enter the compact program if they return to KU. The same is true for any student who drops out during the four-year compact period. By paying the average compact tuition, they frontload the costs of their education. There is no provision for any refunds if students drop out; the university just keeps that overpayment.
Only about 36 percent of the freshmen who entered KU in 2007 completed degrees in four years. Another 30 percent who returned for a fifth year also arguably got their money’s worth out of the compact although they faced a 20 percent tuition increase when they returned to school. KU officials had hoped the tuition compacts would be a strong incentive to finish a degree in four years, but for those 30 percent, it apparently didn’t provide enough motivation.
KU always has presented the tuition impact as a budgeting tool, not a cost-cutting measure. Maybe families of KU students are willing to pay more at the front end — and risk losing tuition money — for the security that the tuition compacts provide, but it seems unfair to require all freshmen to enter into the four-year compacts whether they want to or not.
In the continuing drive to control the costs of higher education, KU and other colleges and universities across the country are likely to try a variety of tuition schemes. Compact tuition has been a popular program at KU, but some of that enthusiasm may be wearing off as too many students fail to complete degrees before the four-year clock runs out.