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Tuition discounting on the rise as educators work to rebuild international enrolments

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  • Some institutions and schools are making wider use of tuition discounts and other financial supports this year
  • The trend is motivated by a desire to usher students into multi-year programmes that will continue after COVID and/or by students’ hesitation to pay the same tuition for online courses as for in-person ones

Faced with continuing uncertainty regarding travel restrictions, visa processing, and vaccination rollouts – and understanding that affordability has risen as a concern for many students during COVID – some educators are introducing greater flexibility in areas such as discounting and targeted fee supports.

The basis for the flexibility is a recognition that until the pandemic morphs from a crisis to a less severe endemic illness, thousands of international students may be:

  • More challenged to pay full fees for study abroad; and/or
  • More cautious about booking programmes this year.

This increasingly common student persona is informing a long-term strategy among some educators to keep students’ dreams alive by making it more affordable to study with them this year.

Dollar for dollar

At ILAC (International Language Academy of Canada), for example, students can use loyalty points earned by their enrolment in their ILAC KISS online language courses to help defray the costs of other ILAC programmes. For every dollar spent on ILAC KISS courses, students receive a KISS dollar – equivalent to CDN$1 – to spend on any ILAC language or higher education course in Canada.

More rewards for higher achievers

In the UAE, some universities have introduced discounting structures that reward higher-achieving students more than other students in order to attract the highest calibre of talent. For example, all high-school leavers in the UAE can receive a 15% discount to go to Middlesex University in Dubai this year, but those who receive “two A* in their A-levels, more than 38 points in their International Baccalaureate diploma, or 95% in the Indian equivalent CBSE exams” are eligible for a 50% fee discount for the whole duration of their programmes.

Discounts to entice international students stranded at home

International students who are unable to travel to Australia given that country’s tight border restrictions will also receive discounts from at least three Australian universities – the University of Adelaide, the University of Queensland, and the University of Newcastle. The latter university uses its website to urge international students,

“Do not delay your study plans – start studying online and complete your studies in Australia when borders open. For students who commence studies online and offshore, we are offering a discount of up to 20 per cent.”

Discounting becoming more of a trend in the US

In the US, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania is offering a 10% discount to students who opt to study online rather than on campus. US News lists about a dozen other American colleges offering discounts this year to undergraduate students, suggesting that discounting is becoming widespread in the US.

Part of some institutions’ decision to discount is also a response to widespread student dissatisfaction reported in major destination countries last year about having to pay full tuition despite not being on campus due to COVID. In announcing Williams College’s decision to discount tuition by 15% back in October 2020, the university’s president, Maud S. Mandel, explained,

“This reduction recognizes the fact that the pandemic and associated challenges are requiring us to cancel winter study as well as fall athletics competition and many student activities, among other opportunities that we usually encourage families to expect as part of their student’s education.”

Affordability was already an issue before COVID

US colleges and students – even before COVID – have been struggling with a situation in which tuition costs have been outpacing the pace of inflation and families’ incomes, making it more difficult for students to consider applying. This has been prompted by colleges’ having to rely increasingly on tuition revenue for operating costs in the face of declining government funding. At the same time, students have been more and more willing to consider alternative credentials and forms of education, making the survival of some colleges and their two- and four-year programmes even more precarious.

Not coincidentally, tuition discounting rates were at all-time highs in the US before COVID, with the annual NACUBO Tuition Discounting Study finding that this rate in 2019/2020 “was approximately 53% for first-time, full-time, first-year students and about 48% for all undergraduates.”

Offsetting Brexit

UK universities have been welcoming an increasing stream of non-EU students over the past couple of years but are facing serious challenges in the form of a double whammy of COVID and Brexit. Beginning in 2021/22, EU students will lose their “home fee status” that has until now allowed them to pay the same tuition fees as UK students. A recent analysis forecasts that this may result in UK universities losing £62.5 million (USD $85.9 million) per year in tuition fees – as a result of losing more than half (57%) of their first-year EU students.

The University of Leicester is tackling the challenge proactively, announcing that it will not require EU students to pay higher fees than UK students for several programmes this year even when EU students officially lose their home fee status in the fall.

In the same spirit, Aberdeen University, where EU students make up more than a quarter of undergraduate enrolments, will begin offering scholarships of up to £8,000 a year to undergraduate and post-graduate EU students in fall 2021 and winter 2022. The scholarships will cover the duration of incoming students’ studies.

Professor George Boyne, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, said:

“The announcement of these new scholarships specifically for EU students is testament to how dearly we hold our long-forged connections with the rest of the continent, and our deep appreciation of the rich cultural diversity that EU students contribute to our community.

Regardless of the outcome of Brexit, our international outlook will remain as strong as ever.  The University has always looked outwards to the world, and we remain committed to building global partnerships and welcoming international students and staff as valuable members of our community.”

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