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College will be far different this fall, but the price will be largely the same

A visitor to the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown walked through the rotunda. Williams College is offering students a 15 percent tuition discount. It's an exception to the rule.
A visitor to the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown walked through the rotunda. Williams College is offering students a 15 percent tuition discount. It's an exception to the rule.Matthew Cavanaugh/for the Boston Globe/file

As colleges across the country release plans for the unprecedented fall semester, each campus has its own strategy to bring back as many students as possible while keeping the coronavirus at bay. One thing most of them have in common: Tuition will remain the same.

A significant portion of university instruction will take place online this fall, a setup that officials say will cost them more, not less. As a result, most have not offered to lower the cost, despite acknowledging that the experience will be vastly different.

“The costs of providing a Brandeis-quality educational experience have increased, not diminished, in light of the pandemic,” reads that school’s website after announcing this month that students will be allowed to return to campus this fall, but most courses will happen online.

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One exception to this pattern is Williams College, an elite liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts that turned heads last week when it announced it will reduce the cost of attendance by 15 percent this fall. Total cost of attendance, before the discount, is around $80,000 per year, including room and board.

The move prompted some in higher education to question why more schools aren’t doing the same, but Williams officials said they can only do so because they have the luxury of a nearly $3 billion endowment and can spread the cost of the discount across multiple years in the future.

“The only way that we can do this is drawing more from our endowment than we otherwise would,” said Williams provost Dukes Love.

Despite its wealth, Williams is not totally immune to the effects of the pandemic, he said. This spring the school froze pay and hiring, reduced operating budgets by 10 percent, and paused capital projects. Love said the school does not know exactly how much the discount will cost, but it will mean a 15 percent decline in tuition revenue, which makes up about a third of the school’s operating budget.

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Most other schools have not announced tuition cuts, saying that the cost of extra sanitation, individual dorm rooms, online teaching technology, and on-campus testing and tracing programs will cost them more. But some, like Brandeis, which costs about $73,000 per year, said they will forego tuition increases this year. University of Massachusetts president Martin Meehan has also proposed to freeze tuition for all in-state undergraduates of the five-campus system. A year at the UMass Amherst campus costs around $30,000.

Smith College, which costs around $74,000 per year, announced on Monday that it will also roll back a planned tuition increase and increase financial aid to help families. Room and board charges will be prorated for the shorter fall semester the school has planned, and students on financial aid will have their allowance for personal expenses increased by $2,000 per year at the same time that works-study earning expectations will be reduced by half, the school said.

But this generosity is, so far, the exception to the rule and comes at a time when schools are worried about their fall enrollment.

The National Association for College Admissions Counseling publishes a list each year of colleges that still have openings in their freshman classes after May 1. This list is far longer than usual this year, with 777 schools, including such top universities as Lehigh University, Santa Clara University, and Bucknell University. There were 521 schools on the list last year.

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Colleges like Boston University, which rely heavily on tuition from international students, are particularly worried. This summer BU announced budget cuts to meet a $264 million revenue shortfall.

At the same time, BU, where tuition plus room and board costs about $77,000 per year, is among a host of schools across the country facing lawsuits from students demanding reimbursement for tuition and other costs after campuses shut down this spring. BU has not offered a tuition cut. It plans to allow its more than 18,000 undergraduates the choice between on campus or online classes this fall.

Steve Berman, a managing partner at the Seattle law firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, which is preparing a class action lawsuit on behalf of these students, said if classes are entirely online this fall, schools should charge less, especially since many schools offer online classes in normal times at a fraction of the price.

"The schools themselves recognize that the online experience is not the same quality," he said.

If schools offer some sort of hybrid experience, he said, the market will decide whether it makes financial sense in the long run. Such plans generally mean taking online classes from single-occupancy dorm rooms. If students find that unappealing, they may choose to take a year off altogether.

Indeed, the move by Williams College could also affect the market in another way, said Karen Long, a private admissions counselor at the Dromgoole Center for Admission in Concord.

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The Williams tuition discount could help incoming freshmen who are attending similar colleges bargain for discounts as well. Even in normal years it has become common for students to bargain with schools to get the best financial aid offer. Competition among colleges for the same students is especially fierce this year.

“Schools really want to keep these students, so they really might have to start bending a little bit,” Long said.

Ken Redd, senior director, research and policy analysis at the National Association of College and University Business Officers, said it is likely that some other schools will also reduce their tuition, following Williams’s lead because they are desperate to fill their fall classes.

“The competition for students is even more fierce than normal,” he said. And with unemployment rising, families will likely need the relief. “It’s clear that there is going to be a much greater demand for financial aid,” Redd said.

The big unknown, he said, is how schools will make up the lost revenue, especially during an economic downturn that has seen philanthropy decline or be funneled toward more basic needs.

”There could be a vaccine tomorrow, but the effects of this are not going to go away for years,” he said.

John Mitcham, the father of a rising Dartmouth College sophomore and himself a 1989 graduate, said he understands why schools can’t afford to offer big discounts and he said he doesn’t want professors to have to endure a pay cut to pay for something like that.

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“I’m not necessarily upset that they haven’t reduced tuition. They have said they will offer a review of the financial aid packages at any time,” he said.

This year his daughter will likely return to campus for two of the school’s four terms, probably in the winter and then again in the summer, part of the school’s plan to limit the number of students on campus at once.

Mitcham said some of her online classes this spring were better than others. The uncertainty of the fall has made him think about what gives the value to an elite diploma.

“Is the Dartmouth degree only valuable because of the history behind it, or is it something that they do continue to offer, a unique value to each class that comes in, and can they find a way to offer that differentiation [during the pandemic?]” he said.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.