CONCORD, N.H. -- In-state students who graduate from one of New Hampshire's public colleges and universities in 2016 could be the first in state history to pay the same tuition for four consecutive years.
After years of significant increases, resident tuition was frozen at the 2012-13 rates for the last academic year and the one that starts in September. Now the University System of New Hampshire's board of trustees has proposed continuing the tuition freeze for two more years if the Legislature agrees to the budget request they'll finalize in September.
That would keep in-state tuition at the system's flagship campus, the University of New Hampshire in Durham, at $13,670, an amount that had increased 45 percent since the 2008-09 academic year and is among the nation's highest for a four-year public school.
While higher education experts say such tuition freezes aren't common, they're one example of how colleges and universities are experimenting with ways to stay competitive amid rising public concern about college affordability.
States rarely freeze tuition for multiple, consecutive years, and in some cases, those that have done so enacted large increases in later years, said Jennifer Ma, author of the College Board's 2013 "Trends in College Pricing" report. And she cautions that net prices can go up for some students if states reduce grants as a result.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley instituted a four-year tuition freeze in 2007, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker recently proposed extending a tuition freeze there from two to four years.
But while such fixed-rate plans might eliminate surprises they won't solve the college affordability problem, said Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute.
"If colleges have to guess how much the costs will be four years from now, they will predict on the high side to balance the budget," he said.
Private colleges and universities also are making similar moves. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 53 private, nonprofit four-year schools offered four-year fixed tuition programs last year.
Paul Hassan, spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said such experiments with tuition rollbacks, freezes, four-year guarantees and other measures show that schools recognize they have to do something to control costs, but it's too soon to say whether any of them will work long term.
"I don't know that we've seen anything that's truly revolutionary," he said.
In New Hampshire, the Legislature cut university system funding nearly in half in its two-year budget in 2011, but restored much of the funding last year, allowing the initial tuition freeze. While state funding accounts for less than 10 percent of the operating budgets at the four institutions that make up the university system, the cuts fueled a misconception among the public that the system was on rocky ground, said Chancellor Todd Leach. Freezing tuition helps turn that around, he said, and this fall's freshmen class will be the largest ever.
"What we learned is just how important perceptions are, both among students and their high school guidance counselors," he said. "So being able to say we're in a position to freeze tuition not only helps on that affordability threshold, but it also helps on the perception front in terms of the amount of support the university system and public higher education receives."
Justin Gaudreault, a student at the University of New Hampshire-Manchester and the main campus in Durham, said he has been satisfied with the financial aid he's received in the form of grants and loans and has appreciated that tuition has been frozen since he started as a freshman last year.
"It would be great if it would stay the same for two more years, so I'd at least know what to expect," he said.