The Board of Trustees approved a 4.5 percent increase in the comprehensive fee for the 2012-2013 school year at the meeting during the last weekend in February. President Michael Roth said that, because of the increased financial needs of the freshman class, financial aid will increase 11 percent next year, which he noted was more than twice the percentage of the tuition increase. Roth sat down with The Argus to discuss the Board meeting where the increase was approved and his thoughts on the future of tuition increases and financial aid at the University.
Roth explained that the Board calculates the new tuition each year based on assumptions about other expenses for the upcoming year.
“We have had a formula that we use for calculating what we think Wesleyan’s tuition would be if we stayed more or less in the order of the schools with which we would compare ourselves tuition-wise,” he said. “We also try to generate a budget based on what we think the need of financial aid will be, what our salary assumptions—which call for a four percent increase for faculty and a three percent increase for staff—will be, what the energy costs are likely to be, what health insurance costs are likely to be…these kinds of things. Then, given the expenses we can anticipate, we know how much we should be able to withdraw from the endowment, we see how much revenue we have and whether we can balance the budget that way.”
He said that the long-term assumption had been that the University would raise tuition about 5 percent each year.
“Our assumption in a long-range plan is that tuition goes up 5 percent a year,” he said. “Under that assumption we know we can give staff and faculty these pretty modest increases to their salaries and develop a budget for financial aid. We did it this way, and actually a 4.5 percent [increase] wasn’t enough, so we had to cut out something on the order of just under a million dollars from the budget in order for 4.5 percent to be enough.”
Students involved in the budget decisions expressed disappointment, hope, and understanding over the results of the meeting with the Board of Trustees.
“I think its unfortunate that tuition is increasing, but it’s fortunate that financial aid will be increasing at an even greater rate,” said WSA President Zach Malter ’13, who was not directly involved in the deliberation over the increase in the comprehensive fee. “Protecting financial aid is our number one priority, so the result is something of a mixed bag. The WSA definitely fought to make sure the administration gave financial aid full attention.”
Evan Weber ’13, Chair of the WSA’s Finance and Facilities Committee, stood as a member of the Budget Priorities Committee, a group of students, faculty, and administrators providing outside insight into the budgetary process, and expressed similar sentiments.
“I’m certainly not happy that tuition has to increase, as I’m sure no students are, really,” Weber said. “And frankly, most Board of Trustees members aren’t too happy about it either. But being on the Budget Priorities Committee and being a student rep to the Finance Committee of the Board, I understand the situation the University is facing financially, with our looming debt and the increasing number of students that are requiring financial aid.”
The comprehensive fee includes room, board, tuition, and the student activities fee. Last year, the total fee increased by 3.8 percent, and the year before that it increased by 5 percent. At this year’s meeting, Roth said he presented the Board with a new model for the University’s budget that he hopes will be adopted in future years.
“I talked to the whole board about this and I think this is the time for Wesleyan to make some very significant changes in how we fund the University,” he said. “I don’t think you need to continue to just elevate tuition, because what happens is you then create more need for financial aid students. Then for people who are not extremely needy in the national context, but who are not extremely rich—they’re kind of left out. I don’t think we can continue to do this. A lot of schools do it, and I don’t think Wesleyan should continue to do it.”
Weber mirrored this sentiment. The biggest issue, he maintained, was maintaining accessibility to Wesleyan for people of all socioeconomic standings, both those who qualify for financial aid and those who do not.
“It’s a kind of a trade off between being able to make Wesleyan accessible with our financial aid policy and remaining need blind, while making sure we’re still ascessible to people who wouldn’t necessarily qualify for financial aid,” he said. The middle class and the upper-middle class get cut out and may end up going somewhere else.”
Roth noted that tuition funds about 72 percent of the University’s operational costs, and that approximately 40 percent of students are on financial aid.
“For the last dozen years or so, about 40 percent of the students don’t pay the full tuition, and that’s manageable,” he said. “But if that becomes 50 percent, and the amount in the last few years is trending towards that direction, then you won’t have enough money to run the school. So then you’ll let people into the school, but then you won’t be paying the staff enough or the faculty enough to actually have good classes. It becomes a really unsustainable model.”
Yet, Weber maintained that the University must not lose focus on the human costs these increases may have.
“The University has made efforts to reduce costs and make cuts,” he said, “but I think it’s too bad that the conversation tends to focus on tuition as a source of revenue—and though it is our primary source of revenue, each dollar of that is attached to a student and them having to pay for it and some of them ending up with student debt after college or choosing not to go to Wesleyan.”
Roth said he discussed possible solutions to this problem with the Board and he plans to discuss them with students in the upcoming months. He suggested tying the tuition indexes to inflation, making the three-year degree a more visible option, and putting boundaries on the financial aid budget. He said he hopes to maintain the University’s economic diversity while lowering tuition increases over time.
“[I’d like] to get off the treadmill of tuition increases that is tied to the spike in financial aid, to get off both those things, but to maintain a level of diversity, and to maintain the quality of educational experience,” Roth said.
Both Malter and Weber would like to see an increase in student involvement in tuition issues, given the major effects such decisions have on their and their families’ lives.
“There needs to be more people in the conversation about what a Wesleyan education means and what are the things that we value rather than just the Board of Trustees and a select few deciding what the budget will be every year,” said Weber. “I think it would be really cool if people who were part of the Wesleyan community, students, faculty, and staff got to say what are our priorities, what are we willing to give up, what are we hoping to keep in the name of keeping Wesleyan affordable for everyone.”
On this note, the WSA plans to hold an open meeting to discuss the increase in the comprehensive fee with Vice President for Finance and Administration John Meerts and the Chair of the Faculty Professor Gil Skillman after students return to campus from spring break, on April 15.
Additional reporting for this article contributed by Justin Pottle, Editor-in-Chief.