The Brainstorms discussion group continued its series of faculty lectures last night at Noyes Community Center with Ronald G. Ehrenberg, the Irving M. Ives professor of Industrial and Labor Relations in Economics.
Ehrenberg presented an overview on the history of college tuition costs from an economist’s perspective and factors that account for why University tuition inflation continues today. He also shared some pertinent information and statistics from his book, Tuition Rising: Why College Costs so Much.
The Brainstorms group began in 1995 to bring faculty members into residence communities to interact with students. Yesterday’s group consisted of about 25 students and community members.
Forces of Change
Throughout the book, Ehrenberg points out that during the first 65 years of the 20th Century, tuition rose 2 to 3 percent more than inflation.
Ehrenberg eluded to the forces that cause tuition to rise in the economy, with specific references to Cornell.
“Cornell is similar to a cookie monster — its sole function is to grab all the cookies we can and stuff them down our mouths. We can pay more, offer more financial aid and provide nice facilities when we charge higher tuition rates,” he said.
Ehrenberg refers to this conceptually as a “winner takes all” society, where universities buy and recruit the best. He noted that students who apply to higher institutions of learning like Cornell generally feel their lives will be spoiled if they don’t get into the best schools.
“More people continue to apply each year, test scores increase, and the problem continues to be that there is no market check as competitiveness increases. There are not many alternatives available and therefore tuition continues to rise,” he added.
Ehrenberg explained how faculty members are the building blocks of the University.
“They are the creators of knowledge and therefore it is important that we retain the best. The administration has to go out of its way to help keep the faculty happy. My salary is a lot lower here at Cornell than it would be at Princeton or Harvard for example,” he said.
Cornell vies with other competitive schools and attempts to lure students in with more attractive financial aid packages, according to Ehrenberg.
“This money ends up coming from recycled tuition dollars and endowments. When the federal government cuts support, the money for financial aid for each student decreases
and is dependent upon the general tuition budget of the University,” he explained.
Alumni, local governments, environmental movements and external factors are crucial educational supporters that contribute revenue, which is comparable to the amount of tuition Cornell takes in, according to Ehrenberg.
The debate over the significance of public rankings was quickly squashed as Ehrenberg emphasized their importance.
“U.S. News and World Report rankings do in fact matter to prospective students and the universities. [With higher rankings], the number of students who apply increase, test scores go up, the University can afford to turn away more students and can offer less attractive financial aid packages. Although the administration may not agree [publicly], the rankings do matter,” he said.
Ehrenberg speculated as to why rankings continue to change year after year in various sources such as U.S. News and World Report.
“Magazines simply won’t sell if they stay the same. Faculty Advisory Committees that [collaborate with] U.S. News and World Report could account for the fold in Cornell’s most recent rankings. Someone complained recently that classes with one student should not count in the percentage of small classes [under a certain number] and because of that recent adjustment [among other factors], Cornell dropped in the rankings,” he said.
“It is unfortunate that an institution like Cornell should have to worry about public rankings and opinion,” said Eve Lenkowsky ’05.
According to Ehrenberg, if tuition continues to rise near 5 percent, the University will make itself inaccessible to lower income students. He pointed out that it is extremely important now more than ever to keep costs down.
“The current administration at Cornell needs to pay more attention to how the research base of the public institutions decline as that of private colleges increase,” he said.
Ehrenberg projects that more students will start at two-year institutions and transfer to universities similar to Cornell after their sophomore year. What one loses in the end, according to Ehrenberg, is the total Cornell experience. “People in [the College of Arts and Sciences] and [the College of] Engineering aren’t as happy here because they wanted to get into Harvard or Yale. Students in [the School of Industrial and Labor Relations] and [the College of] Architecture, [Art and Planning] are exuberant because they are in the best programs in the country,” he said.
“I thought it was interesting. I had not realized the role of alumni and faculty play in determining how much money is spent by Cornell,” Marcus Berley ’05 said.
Heather Hermann ’03 agreed. “It was nice to have the opportunity to converse with faculty on a more personal level,” she said.
From 1995 to 1998, Ehrenberg served as vice president for academic programs, planning and budgeting. He is the founder of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute,
which conducts economic research through various institutions of higher learning. Ehrenberg is a graduate of Binghamton University and began his teaching career at Cornell in 1971. He has published over 15 books and 100 papers during his academic tenure.
Archived article by Chris Westgate