Last week in The Washington Post, the President of Wesleyan University (CT), Michael S. Roth, announced his school’s new initiatives regarding tuition increases, financial aid packages, and a three-year degree. Of the first two items, he writes:
In a new model we are developing we will be committed to spending almost a third of our revenue on scholarships while meeting the financial need of our students without requiring excessive loans. We will also commit to linking tuition increases with inflation, rather than depending on the much higher rates of increase to which Wesleyan (like most colleges and universities) has been accustomed for decades.
On the surface, Wesleyan’s plan seems future-student friendly. One-third of revenue going to scholarships seems pretty generous (I have no idea what WU’s operating and financial aid budgets are), and capping increases to the 3-4% rise in inflation makes the school look like a good financial steward. If I were the parent of student interested in WU, I’d be optimistic that my child would be eligible for some aid from the school and relieved not to have to plan for large jumps in tuition. But there’s a darker side to this, I think, and the school’s new push for three-year degrees is perhaps the giveaway.
If WU is capping its financial aid to one-third of its revenues (i.e., tuition and fees, mostly), it’s possibly doing so at the expense of “need-blind” aid. “Need-blind” aid is essentially merit-based scholarships, money that goes to good students, based on test scores, grades, etc. Universities use need-blind aid to attract some percentage of excellent students to their campuses. I would bet that Wesleyan is moving away from need-blind aid and increasing aid to the students who come from less-affluent homes. Again, on the surface this sounds great. But the move effectively caps the number of in-need students. The rich families won’t be affected, as they can afford the tuition if they really want to send their children to Wesleyan. Poorer families will be vying for the few spots made available by the aid packages. One possible result is a less economically diverse student population.
The tuition/inflation link is just a marketing ploy, I think, and potential students might be wary of the effect such a link could have on things like maintenance, faculty salaries (which is related to faculty happiness and productivity), campus services, etc. It’s nice to think that campus expenses rise just with inflation, but that’s rarely the case. Unless WU is happy with all it currently has — and has no plans for growth, etc. — then the link makes sense. Otherwise, the link will force administrators to cut back across the board.
So what of the three-year degree, then? Let me start by saying that I have no problem with a three-year degree in and of itself. Four-year degrees seem arbitrary, and a lot of what students need from college can probably be had in three very focused years. But I think WU is counting on the three-year degree to keep its financial aid cap in place. Students accepted to the three-year program (effectively students with enough AP or dual-enrollment credit) are likely less in need of aid than other students. This is simple demographics. Students with lots of AP credits usually come from affluent school districts, which are funded by the affluent families that live in those districts. Or private schools. WU can count on getting $150,000 (I’m guessing) from each 3-year student, while a 4-year in-need student might bring in that same amount but cost WU $50,000 in aid.
Obviously, I don’t know the details of WU’s plan. And perhaps I’m being cynical. I think private schools without super endowments are feeling the economic pinch. $50,000 a year tuition seems like the magical number, the maximum cost even the richest folks are willing to pay. So if the tuition dollars start to level out, some things must go. Private schools can’t cut back on amenities — gyms, nice dorms, etc. — because those things are what set them apart from much less expensive public schools. So they have to cut financial aid and slow staff salaries. They also have to attract more students who can pay the full amount.
Here’s my worry, especially from my position as a private university employee: How many such students exist anymore? Are the rich reproducing enough to keep a steady flow of offsprings heading to college? And what will these families demand in return for their full tuitions? I don’t think the traditional liberal arts education offered by Wesleyan is very much valued anymore. Rather, students (and their parents) are after the credentials and connections that a place like WU offers. The plan that Roth lays out pays lip service to the liberal education roots of the University, but it masks an unsettling reality: private higher education is more for the rich than ever before. That reality means the poor will have even less access to the connections and opportunities required to move into (or above) the middle class.