Executive Privilege

The first-years who enrolled this fall came to Carnegie Mellon paying $44,048 in tuition, room and board, and other various fees. That’s 8 percent more than the class of 2009 paid a year earlier, and about twice what students paid in fall 2000.

Carnegie Mellon and other top universities are stuck in a cycle of setting tuition rates, trying hard to avoid appearing too expensive, and trying harder to avoid appearing too cheap.

As a result of this competition, the cost of a college education is soaring, and that’s especially true at Carnegie Mellon. The trustees and administrators charged with setting tuition rates have been deliberate in their strategy
of catching up and keeping pace with the tuition rates of top-tier universities.

Every semester, Carnegie Mellon loses students as a result of the financial burden — I’m sure many more don’t bother applying. Others work hour after hour to make ends meet, struggling along the way to keep their grades up to snuff.
One student wrote to me recently, “I barely made it back to school this year because I could not make my tuition.... Working three jobs to make tuition is very hard, as it significantly impacts my performance in school. I register for my classes late every semester because I have a hard time making payments.”

Still others let the loans pile up as they kiss goodbye to the ability to have free choice of what they do when they graduate.

One friend told me, “I only hope that it will not affect me to the degree that I have to forego a position that I would really love for one that pays more so that I can pay off loans.”

Another said that she wouldn’t have the option of attending graduate school because of the loans she’d accrued.
As I’ve written before, I have confidence in Carnegie Mellon’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. But the tuition game feels like it is out of control, and students are taking a beating as a result.

At Carnegie Mellon, students usually get a lot of chances to offer their input. But tuition is one issue on which students have not been able to offer their input in any meaningful way.

Each fall as administrators plan the following year’s tuition, vice-president for enrollment Bill Elliott e-mails a handful of students, inviting them to be a member of the Undergraduate Tuition Committee. In the past, that meant that those few students would attend a fancy dinner in the University Center with faculty, trustees, and parents of currently enrolled students listening to the administrators present reports about how Carnegie Mellon is spending money and how the university has fared in the rankings. Then there’s time for dinner and discussion.

I was honored that Elliott invited me to last year’s Undergraduate Tuition Committee, but by the end of the meeting I was frustrated and bitter. While the e-mail I received read, “We need your help in formulating this recommendation [to the trustees on the 2006-2007 tuition],” I left the meeting feeling like it had been more like a pep rally than a focus group, like it was just a way to be able to say that students and parents were part of the process.

Somewhat to my surprise, I received an invitation to this year’s meeting too. The e-mail was nearly identical to last year’s — essentially a copy-paste job with a new date.

Here’s to hoping that the meeting itself will have changed a little more than the e-mail did.