By Katy Hopkins

A degree of certainty may help families to pay for college

Though it may come as a surprise to some families who are new to the college decision process, annual tuition hikes are the norm at most colleges and universities across the country.

For the 2011-2012 school year, average tuition and fees increased 4.5 percent at private, nonprofit colleges and 8.3 percent for in-state students at public universities, according to College Board's Trends in College Pricing 2011 report. Though private, nonprofit colleges are posting smaller tuition increases, on average, than in years past, the annual upticks may still make financial forecasting a challenge for collegebound students and their parents.

At some schools, though, incoming students and their families don't have to factor in the possibility of rising tuition. Through tuition guarantee plans, schools including the University of Kansas , Immaculata University , and Capitol College have been promising incoming freshmen that their tuition bills won't increase in subsequent years. Several more schools have added a tuition guarantee for 2012-2013, including Columbia College and Sewanee -- University of the South .

Schools' tuition guarantee programs can vary in name and rules. At the University of Kansas (KU), for example, the program is called a tuition compact, while at George Washington University , it's known as fixed tuition. The University of Colorado -- Boulder 's program only extends to nonresident students, and Columbia College, unlike some institutions, allows students to qualify for the fixed rate for five years, rather than four. But all programs may help prospective families to better gauge the total costs of an undergraduate education.

"We think that in these economic times, families are looking for a degree of certainty in their financial planning," says John McCardell, vice chancellor at Sewanee.

"At least knowing what four years at Sewanee will cost as opposed to guessing -- we think that's something that families will find not only appealing, but also considerate."

Financial planning for college has come to the forefront this year with the advent of federally mandated net price calculators on every school's website. Families can now use the calculators to estimate the total cost of the first year of college for a full-time student at any U.S. college or university. At schools that offer the tuition guarantee, families will have an added peace of mind that the tuition level, usually the bulk of college costs, will hold steady.

But while tuition guarantees can lend a degree of clarity to financial forecasting, attending a school with such a program won't necessarily be the least expensive option. The programs don't mandate that other college fees, such as room and board, won't rise during a student's time of enrollment.

And other schools are debuting a variety of cost savings initiatives, including 2012-2013 tuition cuts at colleges including Cabrini College in Pennsylvania, the University of Charleston in West Virginia, and Lincoln College in Illinois, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU). Plus, with a combination of merit and need-based aid packages, schools that otherwise look very expensive can fall within a family's ability to pay.

"It's impossible to say that one type of measure is better than another," notes Tony Pals, NAICU spokesman. "Students and parents really should take a look at individual institutions and see what they are doing to stay affordable."

At Columbia College, at least, the new fixed tuition plan seems to have piqued an interest in college financing among prospective families, says Admissions Counselor Tina McNeil.

"It kind of entices them and draws them in," she says. "It's definitely caused them to ask more questions and dig deeper and get the whole financial picture."


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More Schools Debut Tuition Guarantee Programs