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This college lowered tuition due to the pandemic — and plans not to raise it again

U.S. colleges have struggled with how to conduct the upcoming academic year amid the coronavirus pandemic. With many schools deciding to offer only remote classes but still charging full tuition, the pandemic has added a new urgency to questions about the cost and value of higher education. Hari Sreenivasan reports on one school that is cutting tuition -- and planning to maintain the reduction.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Despite the fact that college classes will be taught only remotely at many schools, plenty of colleges and universities are charging full tuition this fall.

    Hari Sreenivasan has a report about one school cutting tuition substantially during remote learning in the fall, and making plans to keep it low permanently.

    It's part of our Rethinking College series.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    During his final months of high school, 18-year-old Anthony Covatta, a varsity golfer, spent time refining his swing and thinking about the cost of college.

    His older sisters have about $180, 000 in combined college student loan debt. Their parents, both public school teachers in Saratoga Springs, New York, worked extra jobs and rented out their home. But the pandemic ended that extra income.

    Anthony's father, Michael, says there were a lot of difficult conversations as the family tried to figure out how to pay for Anthony's first year of college, $23, 000 after financial aid and a golf scholarship.

  • Michael Covatta:

    We don't live in a big house, so you — voices carry. And he can hear those conversations about how this was going to happen and how we were going to manage going forward financially. And it was stressful.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But about a month before his high school graduation, Anthony got an unexpected e-mail from the school he was planning to attend, Southern New Hampshire University, also known as SNHU.

  • Michael Covatta:

    That e-mail was basically two paragraphs' long. And there was no confusion. We are going to waive your tuition for your first year, and then it will be $10, 000 a year after that.

  • Anthony Covatta:

    That's a huge weight off me. I can't believe someone would have to pay that much for an education.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Paul LeBlanc agrees.

  • Paul LeBlanc:

    The lifetime earnings for someone with a college degree in the right major is always going to be a good math formula. But it's not worth it at any cost, and we have got to bring cost down.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    LeBlanc is the president of SNHU, a private, nonprofit university in Manchester, New Hampshire. The school is lowering tuition for students normally on campus from $32, 000 to $10, 000, while remote learning continues, and has committed to permanently reduce tuition to $10, 000 in the years to come.

    All incoming freshman are receiving a full-ride scholarship for their first year. LeBlanc says the school planned to lower tuition in 2023, but the pandemic prompted the change.

  • Paul LeBlanc:

    This recession and this level of unemployment dwarfs the last recession, and we see enormous need for new innovative models at a lower, more affordable cost.

    So, the elite schools probably won't feel much pressure to change. They will get back to normal. They will say, whew, that was a pretty terrible period, but we're back to the kind of way we always were. But there are probably fewer than 50 schools, out of 4, 000, that fit that category.

    I think, for everybody else, things are up for grabs.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    SNHU has a relatively small campus for about 4, 000 students, but it is the largest university by enrollment, because more than 130, 000 students attend online.

  • Woman:

    When I made that first phone call, they made it so easy.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You might have seen the ads on TV. Under LeBlanc's leadership, the school has spent more than $500 million on national marketing since 2009. It's boosted enrollment and profits. The school brought in more than $100 million last year.

  • Paul LeBlanc:

    Our ability to be in front of more people, to serve more students has also meant that we haven't raised tuition in over 10 years.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But the school has faced scrutiny about its marketing spending, as well as concerns about graduation rates and what SNHU grads earn. And it's often lumped together with for-profit competitors when issues are raised about the quality of online degree programs.

    But now, as so many universities and colleges across the country are struggling financially and trying to adapt to online learning, LeBlanc says, SNHU is financially solid and an expert at remote learning.

  • Paul LeBlanc:

    And I would go so far as to argue that the best online courses are often quite superior to traditional face-to-face courses.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    While other schools are also lowering costs and offering individual discounts, SNHU stands out for the amount of tuition it's cutting.

    Cost-cutting was on President LeBlanc's agenda well before the pandemic.

  • Paul LeBlanc:

    We have 120 competencies. And you can master those as fast as you like.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We first visited the university six years ago, when it offered a unique competency-based degree for mastery of subjects vs. credit hours for time spent in class.

    Since then, the school has continued to tinker with ways to lower costs by reducing the time students spend in typical campus-based lecture courses.

    LeBlanc says, the school's goal after the pandemic is to have on-campus yearly tuition be the same as online.

  • Paul LeBlanc:

    To go from 32 to 10 is a heavy lift. No one will get there by cutting. You can't cut enough expense out of what you do to lower tuition to that level.

    So, it really means thinking about structural change and systems. Is there any reason why we can't go 12 months out of the year and get students out into the work force faster?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Incoming junior Anzania Norman is one of the students on the front lines of change at the university. She's enrolled in a pilot project which, before the pandemic hit, combined self-driven competency-based online learning with dorm living and classroom supports.

  • Anzania Norman:

    It's very different from a regular classroom. There isn't a teacher teaching you. There isn't someone sitting in front of you for hours on end talking to you.

    I feel like it's easier, because I'm learning on my own at my own pace, and I'm grasping what I really need from the program.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    While she says the program has been a good fit for her, giving her flexibility to work while attending school, she is wondering how future employers will view her unconventional degree.

  • Anzania Norman:

    When someone looks at my resume, they're not going to see that I have a GPA or grade, because the program doesn't require a GPA. I would have to explain to them exactly what the program is about and how it's done.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    That and other issues could come up for students as the school pushes the boundaries of a traditional college education.

    But President LeBlanc says higher ed needs to adapt to meet the needs of today's employers.

  • Paul LeBlanc:

    Let's not hold our new models up to a standard that our existing models don't meet today.

    In reality, an employer looking at a college transcript can't actually discern very much about what you actually learned or know. Employers think about skills. So, moving into a skills-based or a competency-based framework gives us a common language with employers.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Teaching that new framework will be faculty like Lowell Matthews, an associate professor of global business and leadership.

    He says, while some professors are still on the fence about the changes, he's up for the challenge.

  • Lowell Matthews:

    Being a professor of African descent, and having limited opportunities personally to be able to go to college, I'm actually still paying today for my college degree and experience, right?

    So, when you talk about equity, it's very personal and real for me, because I am still in debt. So, are we really setting up students for success by allowing them to graduate with debt?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Matthews and his colleagues are hoping the university's lower tuition will help to alleviate those debts.

    The school will announce how it plans to get tuition down permanently during the following school year.

    For the "PBS NewsHour, " I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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