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Holding the Line: Northland Tuition Guarantee offers four-year fixed rate
January 23, 2014
By Larry Servinsky, Ashland Daily Press PDF version
There’s long list of items for students to worry about as they enter college. Among those concerns could be classes, preparing for a career or even how to get the most bang from a dwindling bank account.
As such, there’s not much time to address concerns waiting for them much later. And often, the surprises that come up, like rising tuition and expenses, often aren’t taken into consideration until they blindside students and their families years later.
That, though, is something that Northland College has taken steps to eliminate. The school has announced that effective with the Fall 2014 semester, students will be able to take advantage of the Northland Tuition Guarantee.
The program guarantees that tuition, housing and student fees for Northland students will be fixed for a four-year stretch, as long as they are enrolled at the college. That allows students and their families some stability as they plan ahead for school and beyond.
“After college is a pretty scary thing to think about,” said Nate Weaver, a freshman at Northland. “And if I have at least one step ahead planned, it’s one less thing to worry about for now.”
The guarantee is one approach among colleges and schools to set up fixed-rate tuitions. While around 320 colleges and universities used this guarantee during the 2012-13 school year, it’s an approach that’s just getting off the ground regionally.
“We think that the closest schools that have anything similar — and each and every college is a little bit different with wrinkles and details — is Iowa or Illinois,” said Rick Smith, Northland College vice president of institutional marketing and enrollment management. “We don’t know of any Wisconsin or Minnesota college that have a comparable program.
“Frankly, we’re pretty proud that we can do it.”
All too often, Smith said, students and their families take into account the first-year expenses involved with colleges and plan their loans, financial aid and funding accordingly. Unfortunately, those numbers change in the upcoming years as tuition and other expenses go up.
“What they don’t think about is that when they come back for their sophomore year, there’s going to be a tuition increase,” said Smith. “Their top-line costs are going to change and that happens during their junior and senior years when they’re trying to move through.”
The Northland Tuition Guarantee ensures that the bottom-line costs are going to remain the same through four years. By keeping tuition at a flat rate, that helps make college costs more predictable for families.
“We believe this is going to be a long-term, sustainable process for us and that it will decrease the (financial) heartburn for families and students and hopefully drive students through college in a timely fashion, too,” said Northland College President Michael Miller.
Miller said that over the past year, Northland officials studied what approaches other colleges and universities around the country were using. While some occasionally offered a guaranteed tuition rate, they often required the full four years to be paid in advance.
That, though, was counter to Northland’s mission and commitment to be accessible to everyone. Tuition resets, another tool used by some schools, also didn’t appear to be feasible as a long-term model either.
Consultants were brought in to run models from other schools and other projections and five-year analyses. And after deliberation, the fixed-rate program was approved in October.
Miller said they’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback since, from both students and officials and media outside Northland. The college was featured in a story done by the Associated Press just before Christmas and at a Council of Independent Colleges Conference on Jan. 5-6, Miller said their session was packed.
“Everything has been positive,” said Miller. “There were some questions early on from our existing students. After they got the answers about how it was going to work, they seemed to be very happy about it and we’ve had a very positive response from our perspective students.”
One question that did come up was how the program would apply to current students. Both Miller and Smith said that students currently enrolled at Northland could take advantage of this fixed-rate program as well.
“They absolutely can,” Smith said. “That was probably something that to some people seemed like something that we didn’t have to do, as they agreed to come here under a different set of circumstances, but our commitment is, as I said, one driven by our history and mission and we did not want to penalize our current students simply because they came here a couple years too early.”
The program puts an emphasis on graduating in four years, as both Smith and Miller said the priority is ensuring students can match up with the career they want as soon as possible without additional costs. But there are circumstances like health leave and medical emergencies within a family that make getting through college in four years hard to do.
In those situations, special exceptions would be made.
“Most of our students do get situated right away with good jobs and into graduate school,” Miller said. “We do really well on that really. But we want to make sure we’re taking care of people.
“They’ll be a set of criteria there. We want to be supportive and generous to our students and certainly understanding, when things happen within a family that require them to be home for a while.”
Northland also has another program designed to help students financially — its Access Guarantee.
Under this program, which is in its third year, incoming freshmen who have at least a ‘B’ average coming out of high school and have a family with a gross income of less than $150,000 will receive, after their financial aid, a tuition that matches the advertised price of the flagship university of their home state. In Wisconsin, that would be the University of Wisconsin-Madison, while Minnesota would be the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
“Northland was created to be accessible to everyone,” said Miller. “We’ve continued to look after that part of our story, trying to make it so any student can find a way to go here, even though it’s a private college. We find ourselves very competitive in terms of affordability and really a national level quality of education.”
Miller also noted Northland has other programs geared to help students, like their career bridge program. Under this, students who graduate but don’t immediately get a job or situated in grad school can stay an extra semester without cost to them, giving them a chance to get more career advice, assistance, internships and be able to add more on their résumé.
While Northland has been setting up ways to help students transition through and beyond college, the school also has been doing a good job helping them get started.
“Peace of mind, for sure,” said Weaver.
“Northland was definitely very helpful. They helped me plan my classes, my advisors really helped me. I know what classes I’m going to be taking so I have a plan. They worked it out with me.
Larry Servinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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