January 31, 2012

Any Person, Any Study … Any Price

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Annual tuition increases seem to be a Cornell tradition in the same league as frigid winters and Slope Day. Unsurprisingly, then, last week’s announcement that the Board of Trustees approved a $1,860 tuition increase beginning fall 2012 elicited little to no response from students. That does not mean that continued increases in the cost of attending Cornell should be spared scrutiny or criticism. Rather, President Obama’s recent commitment in his State of the Union address to containing the cost of higher education should serve as a call to action — the University must seriously investigate alternatives to tuition increases so it can continue to fulfill both aspects of its mission: “any person … any study.”Tuition increases at Cornell have been remarkably consistent as long as I’ve been a student. For all undergraduates, tuition increased $1,700 in 2010, $1,875 in 2011 and now $1,860 in 2012. These increases far outpace inflation, but the University justifies them on the grounds of increased costs and the maintenance of a successful financial aid program. On the surface, such increases are accepted as normal and bearable. But over the course of four years, what is the financial implication for tuition payers?My parents illustrated the burden of consistent tuition increases with a simple mathematical exercise. When I applied early decision, the advertised resident tuition rate for contract colleges was that for 2008-2009: $20,160 per academic year. So, it would naturally follow given the information provided that the cost of tuition over four years would be $80,640 excluding inflation. In actuality, given the increases, tuition was $21,610 my freshman year, $23,310 my sophomore year and $25,185 my junior year. If the approved increase for next year is carried out, my tuition will be $27,045. The grand total over 4 years: $97,150, an amount 20.5 percent greater than the advertised tuition when I applied. Thus, the net unanticipated cost of tuition increases for my family was $16,510. That’s a very significant expense, and doesn’t include increases in other University fees. Compound inflation rates yields the unfortunate truth that in real terms, consistent tuition increases are a large and unexpected financial obligation for Cornell families. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual inflation rate was -.34 percent in 2009, 1.64 percent in 2010 and 3.16 percent in 2011. In fact, according to the student financial aid website FinAid, there is no statistically significant correlation between tuition increase rates and the general inflation rate. Recently, tuition increases have generally doubled inflation. A better means of evaluating tuition increases is the Higher Education Price Index, calculated each fiscal year by the non-profit Commonfund Institute. The HEPI takes into account price increases in a market basket of goods and services purchased by colleges and universities, measuring inflation affecting providers of higher education. Interestingly, the inflation rate calculated by the HEPI was 2.3 percent in 2009, 0.9 percent in 2010 and 2.3 percent in 2011. Cornell’s tuition increases greatly exceeded these rates as well; undergraduate tuition increased 4.75 percent for students in the endowed colleges in 2011.So what drives such large tuition increases for Cornell and similar universities? Half of the revenue from the recently announced increase is earmarked for financial aid, and students receiving aid are largely protected from increases. But not everyone is adequately covered by financial aid to withstand consistent increases. Students with total family income exceeding $120,000 still have to borrow significantly from federal, University and external sources in order to pay tuition. These students represent only 24 percent of aid recipients at Cornell, and probably many of them are among the almost 40 percent of incoming students who don’t even apply for aid. The students in this income bracket shoulder the burden for maintaining the current financial aid system through tuition increases, even though the current system does not adequately cover their needs. Many of the students in question do not meet the usual definition of needy and won’t receive much sympathy from the general public, but for them affordability is now a serious issue. The rest of the revenue from the recently announced increase will augment the University’s operating budget. Of course, some increases are natural given the inflation rate calculated by the HEPI. Cornell, however, has largely failed to demonstrate a commitment to cost containment in innovative and progressive ways. I need not remind many Cornellians of the excessive bureaucracy and needless redundancies that plague East Hill. I also need not remind the management consulting firm Bain & Company; as part of the “Reimaging Cornell” initiative they suggested consolidation and layoffs to reduce costs. It remains to be seen how rigorously the University will pursue cost-cutting measures.More drastic possibilities for cost-cutting exist in an evaluation of academic departments at Cornell. It’s no secret that the current organization of the University makes little sense. Possible consolidation could increase opportunities for both students and faculty and reduce needless expenses. The contract colleges, in particular, could benefit from a re-organization that would ensure they best fulfill their land grant mission. Perhaps such a commitment would encourage increases in state funding and alleviate drastic percentage increases in resident contract college tuition.The University has shown a remarkable inability to change how it operates, and so many of these possibilities seem unfeasible despite their promise. Stakeholders have too much to gain from the existing structure, and so long as students accept tuition increases there is little reason for the administration not to continue the status quo. But President Obama, both in the State of the Union and in a speech at the University of Michigan last week, renewed a commitment to containing tuition costs. He even suggested that universities that continue to raise tuition could lose critical federal aid. If President Obama follows through, look for future tuition increases to have catastrophic consequences not just for students but for Cornell as well.Students should at least take this opportunity to talk with their parents about tuition. You might be surprised by the difficulties your parents face financing your education. With the help of student leadership, it is imperative that we voice concerns with a decision that affects us so directly. Consistent increases in tuition undermine the University’s commitment to “any person … any study” and adversely impact students not popularly thought of as in need of aid by burdening them with debt. If the University critically evaluated the financial aid system and entertained all possible forms of cost-cutting, perhaps tuition increases could be restricted. We may not be able to change the Cornell tradition of miserable winter weather, but President Obama has mandated that we at least evaluate the tradition of a Cornell education becoming progressively more expensive.

Jon Weinberg is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at jweinberg@cornellsun.com. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jon Weinberg

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