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By Susan Whealler Johnston, President and CEO, NACUBO

At this time last year, colleges and universities were wrestling with extraordinary uncertainty, facing questions about how to manage the implications of soaring unemployment and a dreary economic outlook amid a global pandemic that had quickly reshaped the way they offered education. While Congress had passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March 2020—which provided significant aid to colleges and students—institutions remained unsure of what the 2020-21 academic year would look like. After contending with student demands for room and board refunds in the spring and calls for tuition pricing differentials for online learning, it was unclear whether many students would even enroll for fall academic terms, especially in online, hybrid, or socially-distanced learning environments.

The pandemic took a toll on higher education institutions. Many colleges, particularly community colleges, experienced enrollment declines, amplifying an already downward trend related to changing demographics and regional population shifts. Layoffs, travel restrictions, and other budget-saving maneuvers were common across the sector. Yet, while navigating this crisis, college leaders remained steadfastly committed to their educational missions.

Despite the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, 361 private, nonprofit postsecondary institutions responded to the 2020 NACUBO Tuition Discounting Study survey in Fall 2020. This is nearly the same response rate as previous years.

The collective findings reflect the course we have been seeing for many years: More undergraduate students are receiving tuition discounts, and the dollar amounts are increasing. While some may question the business acumen and sustainability of tuition discounting decisions—actions that are designed to enroll more students—the challenges of 2020 add context and helps highlight that tuition discounting is a strategic tool for mission-driven colleges and universities.

Over the past year, NACUBO has seen an uneven impact and suspects an uneven recovery to occur across the higher education sector. It is important to note that the topline findings of our study reflect averages; every institution will have a unique story to tell about their discount rate, enrollment trends, and net revenue outcomes.

As we examine the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the diversity and equity challenges facing our nation, we cannot ignore the fact that providing financial support to students is a commitment to the transformative potential of higher education. The urgency of the pandemic and social unrest in 2020 made clear the need for a more educated, just, and inclusive society, and tuition discounting plays a role in making that possible.

The 2020 NACUBO Tuition Discounting Study provides administrators, policymakers, advisors, and others data to inform decision-making. I hope that readers also will see how the data reflect the commitment colleges make to their missions and their investment in a more educated and inclusive populace.

NACUBO would like to thank Vemo Education for their generous support for the 2020 Tuition Discounting Study.

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