The average tuition discount was nearly 50% for undergraduates at private colleges, one recent study found.
By Sarah Wood | Oct. 28, 2022
College is a costly investment, but there are several ways to reduce the burden.
One option is through tuition discounts, which in recent years have been offered at historically high rates at private colleges, for instance.
The average tuition discount was estimated to be nearly 50% for all undergraduates at 359 private, nonprofit colleges during the 2021-2022 academic year, according to an annual survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.
What Is Tuition Discounting?
Tuition discounting refers to any type of financial assistance a school uses to reduce the net price of attendance for its students, says Jill Desjean, senior policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
Some discounts apply to all undergraduates while others are for a specific group of students. Discounts may come in the form of a tuition waiver.
Tuition waivers "are a great planning tool for students because they know up front, for hopefully their whole time in college, what they are going to be paying or what portion of charges they are going to be paying," says Zachary Goodwin, executive director of financial aid and scholarships at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"They can easily look at things in a four-year perspective," he adds. "Whereas it can be a little harder sometimes to plan ahead when costs are going to change every year, but you don't necessarily know what that looks like. So it gives a little bit of stability."
Be sure to check with your school about eligibility for a tuition discount, experts say.
Ways to Get a Tuition Discount
Here are five areas where students and their families may discover a tuition discount or waiver.
1. Attend a Tuition-Free College
Not every college or university charges tuition. But attending a tuition-free school comes with stipulations.
For instance, in exchange for no tuition or room and board fees, students who attend service academies – including the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado, the United States Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut, the United States Naval Academy in Maryland, the United States Merchant Marine Academy in New York and the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York – must serve after graduation.
Other schools have income, residency or work requirements. Students at Berea College in Kentucky, for example, must work at least 10 hours per week on campus.
"Generally speaking, tuition revenue accounts for a pretty good chunk of your operating cost," says Nat Smitobol, a college admissions counselor at Ivywise. "When you are a school like Berea, you have decided that you are going to find a different path to fund your operational cost."
2. Receive a Tuition Waiver Based on Household Income or Demographics
Colleges like the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor and Princeton University in New Jersey offer free tuition to households who fall below a certain income threshold. Both of these schools say they meet full financial need with a no-loans policy.
Beginning fall 2023, families at Princeton who earn up to $100,000 do not have to pay tuition or room and board fees, according to the school's website. The current income cutoff is $65,000.
"Instead of applying this complicated formula to every person and giving everyone precisely the amount of need they are going to need, schools will just say, 'Across the board, if your family makes less than this amount of money, you don't pay anything for tuition,'" Desjean says. "It keeps it simple and sends a really clear, transparent message to low-income families that they can afford that education."
Tuition waivers aren't just based on income. Many are targeted to support certain student populations, including foster, military or American Indian students. Additional documentation may be required.
"Often those are populations that have been very underserved or who are unlikely to have the resources to make college possible for them," Goodwin says.
3. Take a Summer Course
Some schools offer reduced tuition for attending classes over the summer. Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, for example, offers 50% off on every undergraduate summer session course. Students can choose from more than 100 options, each lasting five weeks.
Other colleges, like Farleigh Dickinson University, have certain requirements to qualify for a discount on summer classes. The New Jersey school offers a 50% tuition discount for undergraduate summer courses, but students must first register for a three-credit course at the normal tuition rate.
4. Apply Through a Regional Exchange Program
Out-of-state students may qualify for tuition at a reduced rate through regional tuition exchange programs. Each state belongs to a regional program, including the the Academic Common Market in the South, the New England Regional Student Program, the Midwest Student Exchange Program and the Western Undergraduate Exchange.
Under the Midwest Student Exchange Program, for instance, students who apply to select programs pay no more than 150% of the in-state tuition rate at participating institutions. Meanwhile, private colleges offer a 10% tuition rate reduction.
5. Be Employed or a Dependent of an Employee at the College
Another way to reduce the price of tuition is to begin working at a prospective college before enrolling as a student. Some colleges waive or reduce tuition for an employee who is attending classes. Employees who have been full time for at least six months at the University of Utah, for instance, qualify for a 50% tuition reduction.
Tuition discounts are sometimes extended to an employee's spouse or dependents. At The Pennsylvania State University, a spouse or dependent up to the age of 26 – which is classified as a biological child, stepchild, legally adopted child or child for whom the employee is the legal guardian – is eligible for a tuition discount of 75% per credit.
Discounts come in other forms. Many colleges either cover the full cost or offer a discount on room and board fees for students who work as a residence hall assistant.
But even if a student does not work on campus, a job at a local retail shop or restaurant still "helps offset the cost of college," Smitobol says.