Administration raises tuition, students fail to raise protests
By staying silent and not demanding to be informed, the student body is relinquishing control over their money, institution, and the form their education takes.
The tuition hikes announced last week did not come as a shock to anyone, but the resounding lack of response should have. Carnegie Mellon has been consistently raising its tuition by around 3 percent for the past five years. Looking at the same five years, I can find no evidence of mass protests against these increases, or demanding fiscal transparency from the university. There are, of course, valid and important reasons to raise tuition, but Carnegie Mellon does not provide detailed information about where the money is going, leaving students in the dark. By staying silent and not demanding to be informed, the student body is relinquishing control over their money, institution, and the form their education takes.
No one would argue that running a top-tier academic institution is cheap. There are salaries to be paid, both to faculty and staff, facilities to be built and maintained, equipment to be bought, and research projects to be funded. Obtaining enough funds to keep the university running and improving is particularly difficult here at Carnegie Mellon due to a remarkably small endowment of $1.599 billion in 2014. Carnegie Mellon is a young university, so it has not had the time to accumulate the massive endowments that back schools like Stanford and MIT. At the same time, Carnegie Mellon is rivaling with these universities for students and faculty. This leaves the school struggling to keep pace in terms of salaries, benefits, and facilities, all on a lower budget. Tuition needs to be raised so that Carnegie Mellon can stay competitive. This argument seems to hold water. Everyone who is going here wants the best education possible, and even improvements that don’t directly affect us add prestige and value to our degrees.
However, it is all a question of balance. Prestige and quality education are all well and good, but they only benefit people who can afford them. Carnegie Mellon should be trying to improve, but not at the cost of students being able to attend or their families being able to maintain financial security. Next year the class of 2017 will pay $50,690 in tuition. When they committed to Carnegie Mellon in the fall of 2012 their tuition was $45,760. Families made decisions and fiscal plans based on the 2012 number, and are now having to find an extra $4,930. This is a problem for every year in our school. My year, the class of 2018, is already facing a tuition bill that is $3,166 more than when we started, and that is before food and housing costs are accounted for.
I have heard a few responses justifying these increases for people who are already committed to the school. The first argument, that comes almost exclusively from other members of the student body, is that if people don’t want to pay the increase they can leave Carnegie Mellon. The issue with this argument is that it turns Carnegie Mellon into a place only accessible to people with thousands of dollars to spare, and that it discounts the lives, connections, and plans that people have built in their time at Carnegie Mellon. The second argument, frequently cited in newspaper interviews with college administrations, is that tuition increases are necessary to keep up with inflation. The issue with this is that tuition increases in the past decade have not reflected inflation. In 2006 Carnegie Mellon tuition was $34,180. According to the US Inflation Calculator if tuition had simply been keeping up with inflation it should have been $40,184 in 2015, a full $10,000 less than tuition for the 2015–2016 academic year. Clearly, there is something else at work.
The “something else” would seem to be increasing operating expenses, which, for example, grew by 3.1 percent or $32.1 million in 2013 according to the 2014 Financial Report. Much of this was covered by a $28.5 million increase in revenue from tuition and other educational fees, net of financial aid. In the report, operating expenses are broken down into six categories: instruction and departmental research, sponsored projects, administration and institutional support, academic support, student services, and auxiliary services and activities. I could not find a more detailed breakdown of the spending. Perhaps there is a more detailed breakdown available. Perhaps everything that is in each of those categories is completely necessary and something we as students should be supporting. Perhaps every dollar of extra tuition we pay is directly contributing to a better academic environment for us, now, and not only for future students. However, the information necessary to make those calls isn’t easily available to the student body so we cannot make informed decisions or have any kind of say about where our money goes.
The most startling thing about all of this is the extreme lack of protest on campus. While some amount of tuition increase is probably necessary, there are many things that can be done to make them more fair and equitable, and perhaps smaller. We could protest for financial transparency so that students can ensure that money is being spent on things they want and care about. We could demand that tuition be fixed when you enter Carnegie Mellon, so that each student pays the same cost all four years, allowing families to make informed financial plans. Or we could petition for better financial-aid opportunities for students already enrolled in Carnegie Mellon, such as the right to apply for the new merit scholarships that were made available to incoming students last year to account for the rise in tuition but barred to those already enrolled.
Carnegie Mellon students were not always so willing to accept cost increases. In 2009 students throughout Pittsburgh, including at Carnegie Mellon, signed petitions and attended city council meetings to protest a proposed one percent tax on tuition. Why should we fight against a 1 percent increase in tuition cost, but not a 3.2 percent one? As a campus, we need to take a stand on tuition and create a dialogue with the administration about the purposes, processes, and expectations for tuition increases.