Whittier College Hopes Tuition Freeze Will Draw More Students. But Can They Get Over The Sticker Shock?

The campus of Whittier College in east Los Angeles County. The school is freezing tuition in response to changing demographics. (Photo courtesy of Whittier College)

Whittier College announced this week that it is freezing yearly tuition at $49,000. The underlying reason is simple: like many other pricey private colleges, it needs to attract more low- and middle-income students to stay afloat.

The problem is, how do you market $49,000 a year — or upwards of $60,000, if you add room and board — as affordable?

"The sticker price scares a lot of people," said Stanford education researcher Anthony Lising Antonio.

Especially the increasing pool of Latino high school graduates. For decades, the 112-year-old private college — the alma mater of President Richard Nixon — drew its students from the largely white, mid-20th century population in east Los Angeles County.

But those aren't the demographics anymore. Today, the city of Whittier is nearly two-thirds Latino, and more than 70% of Whittier College's 1,700 students are Latino, African American or other people of color.

Those populations overall have lower median family incomes than white families — so it's important, Antonio said, for Whittier College to not only freeze tuition at its current level, but to emphasize its financial aid packages.

Whittier provides financial aid to 93% of its students, and the college says it's been increasing the amount of aid by about 3% percent in the last few years (prior to the tuition freeze, it had increased annually by about the same rate, according to the announcement.)

"Customer relations-wise [the tuition freeze] is a really smart move," Antonio said, because it may dispel the sticker shock.

And that's good for potential students, he said, because it allows them to apply to a small, private college they may not have considered.

COLLEGES WORRY ABOUT FEWER HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATES

Birth rates dropped sharply after the Great Recession and now there are smaller high school graduating classes in many parts of the country. Larger colleges haven't seen drops in applications, but demographic shifts have forced some smaller, private colleges to merge with other institutions, while some colleges in the Northeast have closed.

In California, the population shifts are more nuanced. According to California Department of Education data, 489,650 students were enrolled in grade 12 in the 2018-2019 school year, 7,251 fewer than four years earlier. The enrollment rate among white students dropped over those four years, but the number of Latino students enrolled in 12th grade increased.

Whittier College's white student enrollment has dropped by nearly 100 students in the last four years, while Latino enrollment has risen by nearly 200 students.

It's clear to administrators that the racial, ethnic and economic makeup of its applicant pool is changing.

"Population trends determine the business model, from my point of view," said Linda Oubré, President of Whittier College.

Whittier College President Linda Oubré. (Photo courtesy Whittier College)

IS THERE ENOUGH FINANCIAL AID TO CLOSE THE TUITION GAP?

The growing pool of Latino students is significantly poorer than their white counterparts. The income gap presents a huge hurdle for many students.

Recent estimates compiled by the state legislature show that median family income for Latino families was $47,200 between 2010 and 2014. That's about $20,000 less each year than non-Latino families. The gap was larger in urban areas.

According to the same report, 23% of Latinos in California lived at or below the poverty line, nearly double the percentage for non-Latinos.

These numbers worry administrators at private colleges more than those at institutions that receive public funding like California State University, the University of California and the California community college system.

These private Southern California colleges and universities tell LAist they've been increasing financial aid packages in recent years: Occidental College, Pepperdine University, Biola University, and Chapman University. None of them said they are considering a tuition freeze.

Antonio said colleges must adapt to changing demographics to encourage more students to earn a degree.

"It moves the needle in terms of students applying and attending," he said.