Cutting college tuition costs could become a new trend 

How about a 10 percent cut in tuition?

In a day when college costs defy gravity as a rule, it sounds like a fantasy. But the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., recently cut tuition by 10 percent, creating quite a stir. Academic pundits have debated whether there is any substance to this move, or whether it is a cynical publicity stunt. Let me assure you that it is a substantive, serious move.

As an alumnus and former governing board chairman of Sewanee, I am exceedingly proud of this initiative, led by our new vice chancellor, John McCardell, and I hope that many other schools soon follow suit. McCardell’s plan evinces a commitment to principles too often missing from academia — candor, transparency and fairness.

The tuition cut is a commitment to candor because it acknowledges that the trend in private-education costs is unsustainable — a bubble left unpricked by the 2008 crash. Private-education institutions cannot continue their rate-of-inflation-plus tuition and fee increases.

It is a commitment to transparency because private education pricing is too opaque. The process resembles what is found in the market for new automobiles, where sticker price is only the beginning of negotiations. Although discounts are based to a small extent on need, schools and administrators often justify them on the basis of “merit.” But they are not telling the truth. Discounts are really based on whatever amount of traffic the market is producing. Sewanee is getting out of that business.

Finally, the tuition cut is a commitment to fairness. The cynics say that a strong institution would not have to cut its tuition and fees: If it is strong, it could fill its spaces with plenty of qualified full-tuition payers. That may be true, but Sewanee does not want to fill its places with only those who can afford it regardless of the price. It wants to include those on a budget who can make the most of its quality education.

My hope is that Sewanee’s clarion call for a sustainable level of private-education costs will help to refocus the conversation where it should be focused — on identifying schools that provide real educational value.

Vice Chancellor McCardell is betting that parents and students finally realize that a reputation based on a U.S. News and World Report ranking and a high price tag does not assure a quality education. Parents and students are reading the unrelenting spate of reports and books showing that students aren’t learning much and yet are leaving college burdened with debt.

We are betting that parents and students will vote with their applications for schools like Sewanee that are serious both about learning and about making costs affordable. We think institutions that fail to make such a commitment are in for a big surprise.

Edwin Williamson, a Washington, D.C., resident, is a retired partner of Sullivan & Cromwell and a former U.S. State Department legal adviser.

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Edwin Williamson

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