Lincoln University's promise got Aitza Hedgemond's attention: The incoming freshman's annual tuition would remain at $11,836 all four years, guaranteed.
It was one factor that led Hedgemond to select Lincoln, a historically black university in rural Chester County, over several other schools.
"I don't have to worry about tuition going up," said Hedgemond, 18, of Burlington, who received some scholarship money but is paying for the rest herself. "I don't have to take out extra loans."
Lincoln estimates its guarantee, announced last April, will save students $1,600 to $1,800 over four years, based on projected tuition increases of 2 to 2.5 percent a year. In-state freshmen this year will pay $7,160 in tuition and $19,612 overall, including fees and room and board, while out-of-state students such as Hedgemond will pay $24,936. (Fees and room and board are not fixed and could rise each year.)
Overall costs at Lincoln are substantially lower than at Pennsylvania's other state-related universities, including Temple, where in-state students will pay $26,378 on average in tuition, fees, and room and board and at Pennsylvania State University, where in-state freshmen in most majors on main campus will pay $27,200. Tuition at Temple is $14,006 for in-state students and $24,032 for out-of-state students. At Penn State, the numbers are $16,572 and $29,522.
Lincoln is among a growing but still relatively small number of colleges and universities holding out the promise of fixed tuition to lure students in an increasingly competitive market.
"Certainly this is something that has been coming up more in the past several years," said Megan McClean, director of policy and federal relations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. "We think it's always beneficial when you can provide predictability for students and parents."
The University of Kansas, the University of Houston, Ohio University, and pricey George Washington University are among schools that fix tuition. Locally, Immaculata University in Chester County began the approach in 2001.
Texas and Illinois have mandated that their state universities set fixed tuition. Legislators introduced a bill in New Jersey earlier this year, but it has not advanced.
"Without a clear idea of how the state is going to fund higher education going forward, it's too much of a strain on the institutions," said Paul Shelly, of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Bond rating agencies, he said, also tend to frown on actions that constrict ability to raise new revenue. Montclair, one of the state universities, had a fixed tuition policy years ago, but discontinued it, he said.
But Lincoln University president Robert R. Jennings said the school needed a way to make college more affordable for its distinctive student body.
Nearly two-thirds of Lincoln students are the first in their families to go to college, 59 percent come from single-parent homes, and 15 percent live below the poverty level.
"Anything you can try to do to keep costs down to make it accessible for students to come to college, it's a help," Jennings said.
Every time the university raises tuition, about 3 percent of students drop out because they cannot afford it, he said.
Jennings said many Lincoln families were hit hard by tighter requirements for the federally backed program that lets parents borrow to pay for their children's education. Last year, parents of 1,149 Lincoln students applied for the "Parent Plus" loan; 849 were denied, he said.
The fixed tuition plan may have attracted students, he said, adding that the freshman class is up by 93 over last year.
"But we won't really know until it's been in effect for a year," he said.
The plan also is designed to boost on-time graduation. If students do not finish in four years, tuition rises to current rates.
Founded in 1854, Lincoln has turned out many notable graduates, including poet Langston Hughes, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and the first presidents of Ghana and Nigeria. The university prides itself on nurturing students who may not have received all they needed in their local high schools.
"We are as much your parent as we are your professor," Jennings said.
In the last decade, Lincoln has received state funds for several new and remodeled buildings on its 422-acre campus. A science building and wellness center have risen in what used to be cornfields. The university also opened an African art center and a football stadium.
But Lincoln has faced financial pressure and enrollment declines.
Since 2009, full-time equivalent enrollment for undergraduate and graduate students has dropped by 681, or 26 percent, according to figures provided by the university. The school enrolled 1,875 students last year, and Jennings hopes this year will shake out the same once enrollment is finalized.
Moody's Investors Service in May lowered the university's bond rating and gave it a negative outlook, citing several years of enrollment declines.
Jennings acknowledged the tuition guarantee will mean less revenue. In December the university launched a $10 million fund-raising campaign headed by Bill Cosby to help make up the difference and is about a third of the way to its goal, he said.
Maria Hedgemond is glad Lincoln made the commitment. Daughter Aitza should have an easier time paying back loans than her son, who graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, she said.
"Each year, the tuition went up, so of course out-of-pockets costs went up. If they would have had a fixed tuition, he probably wouldn't be paying back as much right now."
Identity: A historically black university.
Location: Chester County
In-state tuition: $7,160
Out-of-state tuition: $11,836
Room and board: $9,000
In-state student fees: $3,452
Out-of-state student fees: $4,100
93 percent African American; 17 percent from the Philadelphia region; 36 percent from Pennsylvania.
Applications for fall 2014: 7,717
Accepted students for fall 2014: 2,496.
Enrolled students for fall 2014: 451.
SOURCE: Lincoln UniversityEndText