Last Tuesday evening, President Michael Roth conversed with students in an open forum about the affordability of Wesleyan’s tuition, financial priorities, and proposed changes to the University’s need-blind status. Roth was joined by Vice President for Finance and Administration John Meerts and Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Nancy Meislahn and began the forum with a presentation about the University’s budget.
Calling the present financial aid and tuition policy “unsustainable,” Roth suggested several different options the University could take to ameliorate its long-term fiscal outlook.
Over the past five years, the rate of increases to student charges—approximately 5 percent per year—has been nearly two and a half times higher than the Consumer Price Index for the Northeast Region, which is roughly 2.3 percent per year. According to the 2012 US News and World Report, Wesleyan is the eighth most expensive private not-for-profit four year college in the country, at $43,674 a year plus room and board and additional fees.
“I think it becomes unconscionable, in an epoch where real wages of most Americans are not going up, to raise tuitions in excess of inflation,” Roth said. “If we’re going to be 5,000 or 6,000 dollars [in tuition] more than Middlebury or more than Bowdoin or more than Vassar, if that happens over time, I think people are going to reject this price gouging. What they won’t reject, I think, is philanthropy. We are very fortunate. People do give millions of dollars for financial aid.”
Among possible options to cut costs and make Wesleyan more affordable, Roth discussed a three-year B.A. program for students who have difficulty paying tuition for the traditional four years. Although students would graduate a year earlier, Roth stated that they would end up taking the same number of classes, making up for the missing fourth year with summer courses.
Another possibility being considered, Roth said, is a change to the University’s need-blind policy, which would retain need-blind status for approximately 80 to 90 percent of the applicant pool. Roth did not indicate what procedures would determine which applications would lose need-blind status—whether, for example, it should be determined randomly or based on the competitiveness of applications.
During the question and answer session that dominated the hour-long meeting, several students raised concerns about the transparency of the budget, the lack of student involvement in decision making, and whether or not the University should consider selective budget cuts.
In one particularly heated moment, Ben Doernberg ’13 criticized what he deemed a lack of student empowerment to evaluate the University’s priorities.
“In the last couple months we saw there was the issue with the Art Library and the issue with changing the rules for how visiting faculty are compensated,” he said. “And in all those cases it didn’t seem like the community was consulted—the people who it affected found out about it after it had already been decided.”
Doernberg stressed the need for information sharing between the administration and students and said that the budget data currently available is inadequate.
“It seems like the way to prevent things like that from happening again is for students to be able to see what the budget of the school actually looks like,” Doernberg said. “But, frankly, this pie chart [of operating expenses] tells me absolutely nothing.”
Vice President for Finance and Administration John Meerts contended that the University website does offer substantial budgetary information.
“The budget is on the website in as much detail as we can give out without betraying personal information,” he said.
Discussions centered around how budgetary decisions should be made and how the value of particular programs should be evaluated. Roth said that making decisions about spending in a democratic manner may be problematic because of differing priorities.
“I do worry—maybe I’m wrong to worry—but when we have a meeting where somebody’s going to say we shouldn’t be spending so much money on whatever your least favorite part of Wesleyan is—whatever you don’t think should be our priority,” said Roth, “I do worry about the impact on the community of that kind of ‘We’re going to get rid of this or that because it’s not really Wesleyan.’”
After expressing his concerns about engaging in these debates, Roth expressed a willingness to receive input from the student body.
“I’m nervous [about having that kind of conversation], but if that’s what people want to do, we can have those conversations,” he said.
Julian Applebaum ’13 agreed with Roth’s apprehensions about allowing students to evaluate budgetary expenditures.
“I bet there are students who could take a non-biased viewpoint towards the budget and actually try and do what’s best for the school,” Applebaum said. “But I think a lot of the students here would just be trying to cut things they don’t like to benefit their [own] department, and in that sense I don’t trust the student body with having so much power over the budget.”
After the meeting, Doernberg said that he felt like some fundamental questions had been left unanswered.
“Wesleyan didn’t accept students of color, and then at some point they did,” he said. “Who makes that decision? Who makes the decisions about the core nature of the school?”