William and Mary tuition plan: What will students think?

April 21, 2013

Samantha Lull said she paid a deposit Sunday to secure her spot in the Class of 2017 at the College of William and Mary. Patrick Linehan, her classmate at Chantilly High School, said he is still weighing whether to enroll at William and Mary or the University of Virginia.

Because of a major overhaul of William and Mary’s pricing policy, such choices took on a new level of complexity.

The college’s Board of Visitors on Friday approved a 14 percent increase in tuition and fees for new Virginia students, to $15,463 a year. The price for this academic year is $13,570. Current William and Mary students will have a minimal price increase, about 2 percent. In fall 2014 and fall 2015, there also will be significant increases for new in-state students.

At the same time, the board guaranteed that the price for incoming students would stay the same for four years. And it pledged to increase financial aid for students from middle-income families, meaning that some will pay less out of pocket than they do now.

For a public university, a big price increase can be a big gamble. It might disturb state politicians who oversee funding for the university and could lead prospective students to consider enrolling elsewhere.

But for William and Mary, the decision might not carry so much risk, as Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and key state lawmakers are on board with the plan. They like the price guarantee because it gives families certainty, and they like plans that help the middle class. Lawmakers are also pleased that William and Mary is expanding the number of slots for in-state students.

Also, demand for William and Mary is high. The school has a national reputation as a “public Ivy” with small class sizes and an intimate atmosphere. That means it has a deep reservoir of prospective students.

Lull said her parents are William and Mary alumni. She had been weighing offers from William and Mary, George Mason University, Christopher Newport University and James Madison University, where her older sister is a senior.

“I like the atmosphere of a smaller, liberal arts” school, Lull said. She said she doesn’t qualify for need-based aid. The tuition increase didn’t especially trouble her. She said her mother was attracted to the four-year guarantee. “She generally likes the idea that it won’t increase,” Lull said. But all of her options were in-state, she said, a relative bargain compared to paying out-of-state or private tuition.

Linehan said he is on the fence between the school Thomas Jefferson attended (William and Mary) and the school that the third U.S. president founded (U-Va.). Linehan said he thinks he will qualify for a grant from William and Mary that will make the price a bit lower than U-Va.’s. The Board of Visitors at U-Va. last week set annual tuition and fees at $12,458, up about 4 percent.

“It gives William and Mary a little bit of an edge, but I wouldn’t say it’s the deciding factor,” Linehan said. “I would rather decide based on which school I like more than the financial aspects of it.”

George Washington University, which is private, and the public University of Illinois have similar fixed-tuition guarantees, providing a precedent for William and Mary’s decision. Such guarantees can help schools attract students who want certainty in what is often a volatile pricing market.

As the May 1 deadline approaches for college-bound students to make decisions, William and Mary will be watching closely how students such as Linehan and Lull make up their minds.

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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