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October 25, 2013

Lesley University President Joseph Moore talks to students on the school's Cambridge campus.

Lesley University President Joseph Moore talks to students on the school's Cambridge campus. Kirk Carapezza/WGBH News

A report out this month from the College Board shows tuition increases at public colleges have slowed slightly, but the cost is still out of reach for most low-income students because financial aid has dwindled.

A select group of colleges and universities, responding to the public outcry over the skyrocketing cost of college, are cutting their tuition.

In Cambridge, Lesley University will slash its sticker price beginning next fall. Lesley’s new tuition plan comes as many families are rethinking the value and quality of a college degree.

Lesley President Joseph Moore walks slowly across the school's campus in Cambridge, mingling with students sitting in the quad.

"Did you guys get the note about our change in tuition?" he asked them. "Did it make sense?"

"I mean, I don’t really know that much about this stuff," one student answered. "My dad really takes care of that."

"Yeah, those are the emails that I forward to my parents," another said.

"But you saw that it wasn’t costing more?" Moore said. "It was actually costing a little bit less?"

The change Moore is referring to is a 25 percent cut in tuition, a cut he says will better reflect the actual cost of a Lesley education.

"Next year’s tuition at both institutions will be $24,000,” he said.

Still, Moore concedes that while tuition has been reduced, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee students will actually pay less to go to Lesley. With less money coming to the school in the form of tuition, Lesley will have to drop the amount of financial aid it gives to students, and right now, the majority of students do get it.

So we asked President Moore: What’s the point?

"We think many families who don’t know what the actual cost is don’t pursue looking at places such as Lesley when they see the higher price," he said. "But if they knew the actual cost, it might be an opportunity that they would consider.”

A report from the College Board finds more than half of all students steer away from colleges they feel they can't afford. So what we’re starting to see are colleges dropping rates and promoting their discounts with slick TV ads.

"Ashland University is taking a bold step to make higher education more affordable!" an ad for Ashland says. "We’re cutting tuition over $10,000 for full-time undergraduate students … "

Ashland University in Ohio is one of a growing number of mid-tier schools that has cut tuition in an attempt to increase applications.

"It’s an exceptional private education, at a more affordable price," the ad continues. "Come check us out!"

Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, concedes some of these cuts are gimmicks, but they also can reap benefits.

"It is possible that these schools will actually become cheaper for low-income students, but it’s not, by any means, a guarantee that that will be the case,” she said.

Meanwhile, Baum says, there are many students who can afford the sticker price, and those students are getting financial aid because colleges and universities are trying to draw them in.

"And if we were really focusing our assistance on those students who don’t have the resources to pay, that would help,” she said. "It’s never going to be low enough for low-income students to be able to pay those prices without a lot of assistance."

Administrators at Lesley say the market and their enrollment numbers will determine whether the 25 percent cut in tuition is successful. Moore says he’s optimistic.

"We’ve just decided that the high-tuition, high-aid formula is working for fewer and fewer families in this country and that’s the market we’ve been serving," he said. "We can't afford to lose those families as potential students here. But the country can’t afford to lose those families in terms of getting a higher ed degree."

While there are some skeptics, students at Lesley burdened with debt were excited to learn about the tuition cut.

“We’re basically spending saving money," said Moud Chabarek, a freshman from Syria. "This is a relief.”

The double business management and psychology major moved here last year and has worried about how he’d pay for tuition and fees ever since his father’s textile factory shut down during Syria’s civil war. Chabarek thinks the cut will draw more students like him.

"Now that the tuition is cheaper, it’s going to attract so many more students because it’s a private university with not as high of a tuition anymore," Chabarek said. "And it’s in Cambridge, which is one of the most beautiful towns to be in in New England.”

It’s an economic theory and marketing strategy that Lesley University has committed to — at least for the next few years.

EXTENDED INTERVIEW: Lesley President Joseph Moore explains why the University is cutting its tuition:

Read the full College Board report:

confronting cost, college costs, higher ed, increasing access and success

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