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In the race for highest tuition, students lose

The rising cost of tuition is a perennial complaint of college students nationwide. This week, the issue came to the forefront at Carnegie Mellon as the administration hosted its annual tuition discussion dinner on Tuesday night.

Indeed, examination of the numbers shows a disturbing picture. It is common knowledge that college tuition has consistently outpaced the U.S. rate of inflation. In 1986, an incoming Carnegie Mellon first-year paid a tuition of $10,250. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics online inflation calculator, this is equivalent in buying power to $18,873 today, an increase of 84 percent. Yet this year’s incoming class is footing a bill of $34,180, a cost 233 percent higher than their counterparts faced two decades ago. At this rate, a member of the Carnegie Mellon class of 2030 will have to come up with just under $114,000. Per year. That amounts to about $61,957 in today’s dollars.

Carnegie Mellon’s cost has even been increasing faster than that of peer institutions. In the 1996 Carnegie Mellon Factbook, the university’s tuition placed ninth out of 11 schools in its peer group. Last year’s Factbook showed our tuition as the fifth-highest in a group of 14, and information presented at the tuition dinner Tuesday placed Carnegie Mellon’s tuition ahead of all 13 other peer institutions.

It’s not so lonely at the top, however. Last year, the six most expensive universities in our peer group reported tuitions within $600 of each other; Tuesday’s information showed the top six within a $1000 price range this year as well.

That fact hints at a situation that is even more disturbing than the raw numbers themselves. It seems universities are setting tuition rates in a nationwide rat race, with each one justifying the increase as necessary in order to remain competitive with all the others.

Part of Tuesday’s presentations were devoted to analyzing how Carnegie Mellon fared in this year’s U.S. News & World Report rankings of the nation’s best colleges before tuition matters were even brought up. Other institutions are making similar connections between cost and rank.

“If we’re just trying to survive, and go on as we’ve been going on before, then the tuition increase wouldn’t be as high,” said John Anderson, the provost of Case Western Reserve University, in a 2005 interview. “But if you stay constant, Case will drop in rankings because everyone else is investing.”

Tuition increases at Cornell University are also partly driven by competition, according to the university’s daily news service. “Cornell offers a premium product ... in an extremely competitive market,” an article stated earlier this month, “and to stay ahead of the pack, the university must keep getting the best students, faculty and facilities — and the best rankings. And that costs a lot of money.”

If tuition is used as another player in the incessant game of jockeying for rankings and competing for students that universities nationwide play, students all over the country lose. Tuition is a major factor in college decisions for many students, yet it is one they have extremely little influence over. While prospective students, strictly speaking, are not forced to attend a school they find too expensive, rampant cost-of-attendance increases risk pricing returning students out of their universities and giving them more reasons to feel abandoned by the administration.

The current rate of tuition increase is unsustainable; university officials everywhere should drop the “keeping up with the Joneses” approach now. As a top-tier university dedicated to researching tough issues and solving problems, Carnegie Mellon cannot just throw its hands up in the air and say the matter is out of its control. President Cohon and the Board of Trustees (who make the final decision) should honor Carnegie Mellon’s tradition of innovative problem solving to tackle the problem head on. Andrew Carnegie created a university for the sons and daughters of Pittsburgh’s working-class families. We would hate to see that tradition jeopardized.