Guaranteed Tuition and 4 Year Graduation: Part 1

Hand with guarantee ink stampThe University of Wisconsin offers a guarantee to graduate in four years. The University of Illinois guarantees its tuition for four years. Both offers are fairly new to colleges in general and don’t have much of a track record in terms of students enrolling under the programs. So which is a better deal? Or are they both just gimmicks for colleges to sooth the family fear of rising tuition costs?

Let’s take a closer look starting with the more tangible of the two offers: guaranteed tuition. If you attended the University of Illinois and had guaranteed tuition starting in the 2010-2011 academic year, you would have potentially saved $3,822. Had you attended St. John’s University in New York, a private school, your savings would have been $10,715.

Except that’s not actually the case at St. John’s.

See, for the 2014-15 academic year, undergraduate tuition is $37,870, that’s $1,830 less than the fixed (guaranteed) tuition of $39,700 for incoming freshman. That probably means your tuition wouldn’t fall below the “normal” tuition until your junior year. St. John’s estimates your potential savings at $2,000.

The St. John’s guarantee isn’t really about saving you money but more about easing the fear of the astronomical college costs we have all been hearing about. That’s according its website “Just think—you will know the total cost of your four years of undergraduate study before you even start college– and you and your family will not have to worry about annual tuition increases.” You know how much the tuition is for the next four years so you can plan accordingly and not worry about rate increases.

Except for room and board.

It’s not included in the guarantee.

Given that the total cost of attendance at St. John’s starting in 2010 was $216,194, a potential savings of $2,000 doesn’t seem to be enough to be a major factor in my choice of which college to attend.

University of Illinois’ tuition guarantee plan works as you would expect so it really would be a savings of $3,822 over four years. But like the St. John’s plan, it doesn’t include room and board. The total cost of attendance for the four years without the discount would have been $111,816.

Now I’m not one to belittle $4,000 but given the total cost of attendance and the horror stories of $50,000, $75,000, or $100,000 in debt, I think people give more value to the guarantee than what it’s actually worth.

Which come to think about it, is probably exactly what the colleges intend.

You can argue that such tuition guarantees go a lot further a state institutions with lower tuition to begin with. Several states including Illinois and Texas have mandated four-year flat fees for their public universities. However, given that public institutions increase their tuition in response to cuts in state funding, you have to wonder as to the true cost of the savings. Guaranteed state tuition is good PR to mask reduced state spending on higher education.

The table below lists 103 four-year colleges with 500 or more full-time undergraduates with a guaranteed tuition based on information from the DIY College Rankings College Search Spreadsheet. I added schools that have announced that they will be implementing some version of tuition guarantees starting in the fall of 2015. Some of the guarantees apply to only selected students. This should not be considered a comprehensive list.

Next time, we’ll take a look at guaranteed graduation in four years.

Colleges with Guaranteed Tuition Plans

(4-year graduation rate for private schools, 5-year graduation rate for public schools)

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  1. […] Guaranteed tuition programs are one way to save money although they probably have a greater effect at public colleges than private ones. The other guarantee program popping up with increasing frequency is a four-year college graduation guarantee. This means that if it takes you more than four years to graduate, the college will pay for the remaining classes needed to graduate. Given that the average four-year graduation rate is less than 50%, this is an appealing offer. […]

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