12/06/2012 11:04 am ET Updated Feb 05, 2013

Affordability in Higher Education Is Achievable

In today's world, it is incumbent for universities and colleges to become more creative and avoid complacency while considering affordability for today's student population. As tuition of private educational institutions have outpaced inflation and the cost of living, one of the most encouraging developments is the emphasis placed on controlling the costs of education, often in novel ways overlooked in the past.

Right now, student loans rank just behind mortgages in household debt. Studies conducted by the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center found that for students enrolled in private four-year colleges and universities and living on campus in 2012-2013, the average yearly budget was $43,298 including tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and additional expenses. Some private colleges and universities have taken these numbers to heart and have implemented tuition freezes or reductions, which has generated favorable reaction from current and prospective students, parents and communities at large, as the move greatly assists students burdened by the cost of education.

Institutes of higher learning are focusing on tuition freezes and reductions as a way to maintain the price of education due to most other factors involved in rising educational expenses are beyond their control. Over the last five years, 43 of the 50 states have cut financial aid funding to students, and some grants to benefit scholars have vanished. At the same time, due to stiffer regulations in place by financial groups following defaults during the recession, some incoming, current and even graduated students are finding it more difficult to secure educational loans.

Given these factors, colleges and universities have proactively reviewed their operating expenses and often discovered waste and duplication of services, which, when eliminated, can produce measurable reductions. Institutions can pass those savings onto their students in the form of frozen or lowered tuition.

One of the most effective ways that colleges and universities can decrease their day-to-day expenses is by addressing changes through an environmental approach that produces savings in a variety of ways. By recycling materials and becoming more energy efficient, a campus will discover significant reductions in its utilities bills. The green initiative extends beyond recycling, as universities can witness an increase in savings by installing low-flow showerheads or replacing old toilets with modern models that use half the amount of water and remain just as efficient. At William Peace University, we continue to find inventive ways to be environmentally conscious, which is why the decision was made to install a cistern to collect rainwater. This project is projected to supply the campus with 90 percent of the irrigation water needed to tend to our grasses and vegetation and cut our utility bill considerably in the process. The alteration played a part in allowing us to reduce our tuition for the 2012-13 academic year. Similar cost-saving approaches have led us to be able to freeze tuition for fall 2013, following our reduction last year.

Internal processes are another key component of making schools affordable: College and university leaders are investigating and reviewing revamps needed to reduce money through realizing operational economies of scale. This holistic review of all components of university operations and services is contributing substantially to the tuition freeze and drops at colleges and universities. As leaders are prioritizing scholarship as their primary service, they are evaluating what programs and activities on their campuses can be modified or eliminated to continue providing the best educational courses for future graduates.

Additionally, there is an understanding among higher education institutions that providing savings through tuition freezes and reductions will inevitably produce more alumni with money available to contribute to their communities and their alma mater instead of toward paying back student loan debt. This change in the flow of money will produce a positive impact on our economy.

The demand for affordability in colleges and universities will continue to increase over the next few years. More students will expect to see a visible return on investment for the amount of money invested in their education. By actively demonstrating to students that major steps are being made to hold the line on the cost of education, as well as continuing to show overwhelming evidence that the degrees students earn will increase their revenue in the future, institutes of higher learning are showing they are concerned and are being proactive about controlling costs to make education affordable.

Dr. Debra M. Townsley is president of William Peace University (formerly Peace College), a private four-year university located in downtown Raleigh, N.C.