Executive Privilege

I received an e-mail on October 17 that asked, "What will the Carnegie Mellon tuition be for 2006-2007?" The e-mail was an invitation to the 2006-2007 Undergraduate Tuition Meeting from Bill Elliott, CMU's Vice-President for Enrollment. "The trustees will make the final decision on the 2006?2007 tuition rate, but the recommendation made by President Cohon is critical. We need your help in formulating this recommendation," it read. I was honored to have been invited.

But the meeting turned out to resemble something more like a sales pitch than a discussion group, and the only means of giving feedback was to make a high-pressure, off-the-cuff speech before all of the guests. The event was not what I had expected.

The dinner guests entered and mingled as they found their assigned tables. Elliott opened the meeting with a brief overview of the agenda: Fifteen minutes to explain CMU?s U.S. News ranking; 10 minutes on tuition changes of the past 10 years; 40 minutes for a pep talk about the spectacular initiatives and efficiency of the University; and 15 minutes on the University?s financial woes, which concluded with the announcement that tuition is forecasted to rise five to seven percent for students next year.

After the barrage of information, my thoughts were muddled. My table?s dinner discussion wandered. After the allotted 35 minutes for dinner, Elliott called on each table to send a representative to address the room. I got the sense that most of the speakers were intimidated by the situation --I certainly was. A couple of witty one-liners lightened the mood, but I got a very clear impression that this was not the place for expressing criticism or concern.

Elliott and the other administrators didn?t seem to need our help at all. On the whole, it felt more like an indoctrination than a discussion.

Over the past decade, Carnegie Mellon University?s tuition has grown far more rapidly than the cost of living in Pittsburgh -- sometimes drastically more.

In 1999, when the tuition jumped a whopping 11.3 percent, Cohon said the increase had the purpose of increasing revenue. At last week's meeting, the best sense I got about the rationale for the next tuition hike was that it will be needed to offset rising health-care costs -- though faculty and staff will be seeing drastic increases in their own contributions -- and utilities such as fossil fuels.

But this explanation seems simplistic. There is another interesting factor.

Universities have to play a strange game as they set tuitions. A university doesn't want to be too expensive, but some administrators think it is even worse to be too cheap. The theory is that cost indicates quality, especially to wealthy parents who foot the bill for their children's higher education. The result is a race to be in the upper middle of the pack.

The minutes from the May 12, 1999, Faculty Senate meeting state, "Bill Elliott showed a comparison chart of tier-one institutions.... Tuition comparisons were noted. CMU's was low in comparison [to the other institutions]."

Looking at where our tuition levels fall today, CMU has steadily made its way to upper-middle range. Mission accomplished?

Frankly, I have confidence in CMU's administrators -- our University is world-renowned for its ability to create and implement strategic plans -- and I won't say I have an exceptional understanding of tuition pricing.

When asked to contribute to the discussion, I was thrilled to be a part of the process. But last week?s dinner was little more than a song and dance, and from what I understand, last year's tuition meeting attendees voiced the same sentiment. If Elliott wants to rally the troops, that's fine, but he should not try to pass off pep rallies as focus groups.