When students in the class of 2016 at Sewanee: University of the South enter their senior year, they will pay the same rate of tuition and fees they will as freshmen this fall, university officials announced Tuesday.
The announcement of a four-year tuition freeze for incoming students comes nearly a year after the university announced a 10 percent reduction in tuition and fees for the current academic year, bucking a national trend of steady tuition hikes.
"We understand that college tuition is rising, and it's rising beyond the reach of more and more families," Vice Chancellor John McCardell said in a video message. "We make this guarantee to provide our families a degree of certainty in an otherwise uncertain economic climate."
In November, the school decided that tuition will remain at its lowered rate -- a base figure of $41,518 -- for returning students in the upcoming year.
Incoming freshmen will not get that deal. They face paying $44,630 in tuition and fees, but that figure will remain level, a guarantee the school did not make to current students.
"We've basically taken two approaches to address the same challenge -- how to make college affordable," said Laurie Saxon, spokeswoman for the university.
Tony Pals, spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, called Sewanee's decision a "bold move."
"It's a significant thing to cut tuition, but then to follow it with another major cost-saving initiative is extraordinary," Pals said. "It's a move that will be watched very closely by institutions nationwide."
Though Pals said a growing number of private and nonprofit colleges have been turning to tuition cuts, freezes and other measures to enhance their affordability, that number is relatively small.
On average, tuition at private and nonprofit colleges has been increasing 4.5 percent per year for the last three years. But this is significantly lower than tuition hikes over the decade preceding the economic downturn, Pals said.
Both critics and fans of Sewanee's tuition cut have called the move a gutsy experiment, but the school says it has paid off.
Applications went up about 20 percent from last year, and campus visits are up 50 to 60 percent, Saxon said. Retention rates also were higher last year than normal, she said.
The school anticipated more than 3,300 applications this year and will enroll 450 freshmen this fall, officials say.
That is not surprising to Pals, who said private and nonprofit colleges have bucked experts' predictions that the recession would lead to a decrease in applicants to private colleges.
"Since the economic downturn private colleges have been able to maintain their enrollments and in some cases to increase them," Pals said. "Private colleges are able to be more nimble and react quickly to the needs of students and parents."
Implementing the cuts at Sewanee has not proceeded without controversy. The school received criticism from parents and students after reducing its merit-based scholarships along with the cuts.
But both Sewanee officials and Pals say that despite lessening scholarships, tuition cuts increase the overall affordability of the institution.
When the school announced the extension of the tuition cuts for returning students last fall, it also said merit-based financial aid would be frozen for any returning students with those scholarships.
Need-based scholarships are subject to flux, as they are re-evaluated each year, Saxon said.
She said it's too early to tell what impact the tuition freeze will have on financial aid for incoming students. The dollar amounts of some of Sewanee's merit-based scholarships will be set in the upcoming weeks.
"At this point, we don't know what applicants will need," Saxon said.