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Are College Costs Really Coming Down? Or is the “Tuition Reset” a Shell Game?

The New York Times is reporting on a trend in education called “Tuition Reset,” in which a number of colleges and universities are dramatically dropping their tuition for new students – sometimes by as much as half.

How can they do that? Is this a game changing shift in higher education?

Maybe, but not the way it’s presented. Because, as the Times notes, virtually no students at these institutions actually paid that full tuition cost. Instead, the “new” lower prices “reflect what most students actually pay after discounting through need-based and merit financial aid.”

In other words, as the Hechinger Report notes, is not so much that college costs are going down as that “they’re not going up,” even in a time of significant inflation – and colleges are being more up front about the real costs students can expect to pay.

This is a good thing insofar as colleges should be honest and straightforward about money. As we’ve noted before, the less transparent a college is about what it costs the less supportive it likely is. If a college’s mission is to support students, surely that starts by being open about costs.

Reimagining College To Make It Free 

But we can be even more honest about college costs, and we should be. We can acknowledge that too many colleges preserve practices like legacy admissions, which hurt diversity and social mobility.

We can go further and acknowledge that college applications are not really a meritocracy: there’s not one single standard for “merit” that everyone is measured against, and admissions decisions colleges make can be self-interested rather than mission driven.  

And if we’re being really honest about the state of higher education, we should acknowledge that in the 21st century a college degree is still used as a gatekeeper for the knowledge economy – and so college should be provided by society, rather than something it dangles out of reach. In fact, if more workers don’t get college level skills the economy is in serious trouble.  So employers are increasingly realizing that it is the skills that employees possess, rather than the degrees they have, that determine whether they can do the job. As a result, more and more employers are switching to skills-based hiring. Employees need college level skills to thrive in the workplace, but not necessarily a degree.

Workers need college level skills to function in the economy, and the economy needs workers with these skills to grow. It’s important that colleges be up front and forthright about their costs, but the honest truth is that in many cases college should be free.

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