Strayer's approach is one way colleges are trying to mitigate the rising cost of tuition as pressure mounts from students facing a crushing debt load. On Thursday, President Obama said he planned to create a college rating system and policies that award federal financial aid based on factors such as tuition, graduation rates, and student debt.
Karl McDonnell, chief executive officer of Strayer Education, in Herndon, Va., says the program will not only address rising tuition costs but will boost graduation rates.
Students who start as freshmen could earn their entire senior year tuition-free, saving nearly $18,000 - but only if they finish their education. Only 2 percent of Strayer's student body, however, come in as freshmen.
Though the university may lose money from students who earn free tuition, it will do better in the long term if larger numbers stay in school and finish, McDonnell said.
"We consider that a favorable trade-off," he said.
About 35 percent of undergraduates who come in as freshmen complete their studies in six years, the university said. Of those who come in with the equivalent of an associate degree, 69 percent complete in six years.
Around the country, colleges are trying different approaches to cut tuition costs.
Cabrini College, a Catholic school in Radnor, cut its tuition by 12.5 percent to $29,000 for the 2012-13 school year. It then froze tuition for 2013-14, as well as most room and board rates.
Rowan University, a state school in Glassboro, also froze tuition this year. Peirce College in Philadelphia will give a 10 percent discount on summer tuition to students who attend the previous fall and spring semesters.
Some colleges have created online degree programs and accelerated degrees so students can graduate earlier and avoid more debt. States, including Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, and California, have seen a push for a $10,000 four-year degree.
Nationally, for-profit universities have been more likely than their nonprofit counterparts to offer rate cuts, said Richard Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University who heads the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
He called Strayer's initiative "an intriguing idea."
"Students who stay in school should face some rewards," he said. "It's a marketing device for Strayer, but it also serves a useful social function."
But Laura Perna, a University of Pennsylvania professor who specializes in higher education, questioned how effective Strayer's approach will be. Many adult students, who are juggling family life and a job, could run into trouble before senior year. The plan doesn't help students in the first year, she said.
"I'm not sure if this is really tinkering at the margins," she said, "rather than addressing the underlying issues."
Two-thirds of Strayer students are female, and the average age is 35. Most work during the day and attend school at night. Strayer offers both online and on-campus classes, as well as graduate degrees.
About half of Strayer's students have had some college before entering one of the system's 100 campuses across the nation, McDonnell said. Locally, Strayer has campuses in Cherry Hill, King of Prussia, Springfield in Delaware County, Feasterville-Trevose, and in Center City. Strayer has 27,000 undergraduates nationwide, about 3,000 of them in the Philadelphia region.
Hall, the insurance agent, is one of Strayer's reentry students. After graduating from Germantown Friends, he attended Widener University and was a small forward on the basketball team but suffered a severe head injury during practice when he was a freshman.
The recovery was long - he spent six weeks in a coma - and although he eventually returned to the team, he never fully got back into the academic swing, he said. He dropped out, vowing to return.
"Here I am 14 years later," Hall said. He attends the Center City campus to inspire his daughters, ages 11, 10, 6, and 4-year-old twins.
He needs 19 courses to earn his bachelor's in finance from Strayer, and can earn up to five courses free, saving about $8,800.
With the goal of becoming a financial planner, Hall said he was focused like never before. He's on campus three days a week. And he spends about 15 hours a week in class or studying.
"For the first time since fifth or sixth grade, I'm a student first, as opposed to an athlete first who was going to school just so I can play," Hall said. "Now my focus is on maintaining A's, which is what I have so far."
Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693, email@example.com,or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq. Read her blog at www.inquirer.com/campusinq.