Growing Number of Colleges Take Bite out of Tuition Hikes

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With annual tuition and fees at Princeton University this year costing as much as a Ford Explorer, no one would accuse the Ivy League school of being a bargain.

But at a time when the cost of attending US colleges and universities is growing at three times the rate of inflation, some creative cost-cutting measures have found their way to even the most prestigious and wealthy schools.

For the 1996-97 school year, Princeton's tuition, room and board, and related fees will total $28,325. But despite the platinum price, a Princeton education this year will cost just 4.6 percent more than last year - the lowest increase in tuition in 30 years. After allowing annual double-digit increases in the 1980s, universities are now striving to do what Princeton has done: keep tuition increases below 5 percent. Harvard and Yale did it this year, and the University of California system managed to keep its 1996 tuition at the 1995 level. "Moderating the rate of increase of Princeton's tuition is the No. 1 priority of this president, Howard Shapiro, and the board of trustees," says Princeton spokeswoman Jacquelyn Savani. It's perhaps proof that higher education is becoming a luxury when 5 percent increases - still twice the inflation rate - are cause for celebration. But with the cost of technology and competitive professors' salaries, combined with scarce public dollars and declining enrollment due to a "baby bust," 5 percent is about as good as it gets, says David Merkowitz of the American Council on Education. "Historically, increases in college tuition have always outstripped inflation." At Princeton, department heads were required to cut their budgets by July 1. The school enacted hiring "pauses," in which secretarial vacancies were left open for three to six months, and a hiring "frost" among high-salaried administrators. This meant that if a position became vacant, the school would try to eliminate it. When the director of development left, the position was erased. When the speech writer became provost, the speech-writing position was cut. "The question was: Does Howard Shapiro really need a speech writer?" Ms. Savani says. More schools are asking similar questions as they come under attack for allowing tuition to soar beyond the reach of average students. A General Accounting Office report released last month found that average tuition costs at four-year public colleges leapt 234 percent between 1980 and 1995; household income and consumer price inflation rose 82 and 74 percent, respectively, in the same 15 years. The report blamed rising administrative and research expenses and - due to a 14-percent drop in state aid since 1980 - a greater reliance on tuition as a revenue source. …