Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

Tuition hikes threaten increased commitment to diversity

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama reinforced the White House’s commitment to reducing inequality in access to higher education, in part by giving colleges incentives to offer better value. Meanwhile, many Washington University students and prospective students are still grappling with the announcement of yet another tuition increase for the 2014-15 school year. Tuition hikes may be a necessary evil, but the rate at which the University’s tuition is rising is alarming and unsustainable.

Next school year, tuition will rise from $44,100 to $45,700, an increase of 3.6 percent. Although this is the lowest percent increase in decades—indeed, things could be much worse—it is the same dollar amount increase as last year and $50 more than the increase we saw in 2012. In fact, tuition has been increasing since at least 2004. Tuition hikes have also far exceeded inflation rates for the past several years (inflation is currently at 1.5 percent), so rising overall costs clearly aren’t the only culprit. Obviously, the University wants to continue to grow and improve as an institution, but does it need to do so at such a high cost to students?

The University is notoriously opaque about where tuition money goes, so it’s hard to even say whether the tuition increases are justified. One can assume that much of it goes toward the salaries of professors and other University employees, who are obviously worthy recipients. But plenty of it also goes toward things like construction and school beautification, which seem to be a bit out of control on Washington University’s campus. And given that Chancellor Mark Wrighton’s massive “Leading Together” campaign is already well on its way to reaching its $2.2 billion fundraising goal, it seems especially excessive that tuition should continue to rise at such a high rate.

One of the most problematic implications of rising tuition, though, is its potential impact on socioeconomic diversity. Although current students who receive financial aid should see their aid packages adjusted accordingly, prospective students might balk at the school’s high sticker price. This is especially concerning in light of the University’s recent rhetoric about bringing more socioeconomic diversity to campus. While the administration does not plan to switch to a need-blind admissions policy anytime soon, it continues to stress its commitment to recruiting low-income students and keeping college affordable. This trend of rising tuition calls into question whether the University is taking that commitment seriously.

Rising college tuition is a national trend, but that doesn’t make the University’s tuition hikes any more excusable. It’s important for universities—particularly elite private universities—to realize that high tuition costs will eventually do them more harm than good. If this alarming trend continues, it won’t be long before prospective students start to think that attending a name-brand school like Wash. U. isn’t a good investment.

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  • Galen Pent says:

    I would like to add a few thoughts. I apologize for the disorganized nature of them – I don’t have time to write a concise response.

    To compare the rate of tuition increase to the general rate of inflation is always going to make the tuition increases look worse. “The” inflation rate of 1.5% (CPI-U, US City Average, all items, %change since Dec 2012) is meant to reflect costs for households in urban areas. Costs at institutions, such as Universities, tend to increase at a faster rate for several reasons. Why?

    First, their labor force tends to be older and therefore higher in health care costs.

    Second, they tend to hold on to legacy costs (pension support for retirees, for example) more than many public companies, which have generally ended pension programs and in many cases attempted to buy out retiree benefits. Or worse – through accounting trickery (ie, Patriot Coal) or sheer neglect of workers (Wal-Mart), retirees are cast onto the public safety nets.

    Third, they often have little incentive to compete based on sticker price.

    Remember back to when you were 17 and you wanted to get into the best school at which you could succeed. You applied to Wash U ($45.7k), Yale ($42.3k) and Brown ($57.2k). Did the difference of $3.4k make you rethink Wash U and focus on Yale? Not any more than the $14.9k difference make you rethink Brown. You knew you were a good student, you figured financial aid would either come through, or signal that you weren’t quite what they were looking for.

    Say Wash U drops its tuition to the level of a local public competitor, U of I at Urbana ($34.6k, since you’re not from Illinois). What did Wash U gain? More attention from students who were looking below that $40k price point – or did it lose students who, realizing that top research schools price in the low $40s, cut off their search at anything less than $40k?

    The point is, Wash U is in a different market, if you will, than many other universities, and prices itself accordingly. Does this price out lots of students? Definitely, including many who would be priced out of U of I or Yale. It also may price out students who aren’t looking to go into a high-income field. Would you rack up $200k in debt to go into ministry, or to be a journalist, or to go into Social Work? You’re probably less likely to do so than a student who wants to go into nuclear engineering, information systems or quantitative finance.

    One final thought – which did you value more when you applied to Wash U, being around a diverse group of students, or being around well-networked students? Financial aid can bring in diversity – earmarking funds for students of diverse racial, ethnic, religiouis and socioeconomic status. But a high price-point guarantees that many of those attending will be the well-connected children of the wealthy, the successful and the powerful. Sharing your freshman dorm room with a Sikh, a Palestinian Christian, and a Vietnamese Buddhist will expand your cultural awareness, but being math tutor to the guy whose Dad is the CEO of a Silicon Valley firm may do more to start your career than anything you learn in business class.

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878