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Where Does That Tuition Money Go?

By Jonathan Silberman Posted: 11/23/2010
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Every week I hear somebody complain about how expensive Emory is, and for good reason. A year at Emory, not including room and board, costs $39,158, only slightly less than the United States gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. However, Emory students should not be the ones to complain; students at Emory are actually getting a good deal relative to the cost and value of other schools. According to Kiplinger Financial, Emory is the 15th best value private university, and the US News & World Reports ranked Emory in its best values. Most of the top schools in the country cost about $37,000 in tuition: the University of California, Berkeley costs $33,743; Harvard costs $38,416; and Washington University in St. Louis costs $40,374. So why do colleges cost so much?

Some of the increase in the cost of tuition is because of outside factors. Students need to receive instruction into technologies that are expensive to install and need to be constantly updated. Computers and other new technologies are of vital importance to a complete education, so it makes sense that as schools are forced to pay more money on them, the cost of an education increases. Part of the increase in tuition is caused by external factors, but many other internal factors are involved in the increase.

Many people blame professors as the cause of high tuition costs. Faculty on average account for one-half to two-thirds of a typical college budget, and professors are opposed to greater productivity. Professors generally want smaller class sizes and course loads, more sabbaticals, and more time for research which means professors educate fewer students and schools have to hire more professors bringing up costs.

However, the median salary for a tenured professor is only $76,200 — a pretty low salary considering the amount of education they undergo. Furthermore, professors have stayed at the same level of productivity for a long time, while college costs have more than doubled in the last 20 years. So unproductivity and the costs of professors are not adequate explanations of why college costs have recently skyrocketed.

Along with the drastic increase in tuition fees has been increase in administrative costs per student. Administrators are the people who work for the University but do not teach or perform research. This category includes counselors, deans and all people engaged in student services. As of 2007, 39 percent of all full time employees were involved in administrative duties, a 39 percent increase since 1993. As universities increased in size, they have increased the number of administrators per student. Universities are an example of diseconomy of scale because they are less productive as they grow.

Partially fueling the growth in costs is the growth of financial aid. As the sticker price of tuition increases, more students are receiving financial aid and as a result the sticker price has to go even higher to fuel the growth in financial aid. While some disagree with him, David L. Warren, President the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, says financial aid is responsible for one-third of the growth in tuition. The rise in aid is paid for in part by the endowment, but most importantly it is paid for by the full-tuition paying students. According to Emory, 62 percent of students received an average of $32,901, amounting to $131 million awarded in financial aid in 2009-20010.

According to Ronald Ehrenberg, professor of economics of Cornell University, the entire economic set-up of colleges is completely screwed-up. Colleges are under pressure to increase their rankings by any means necessary. Colleges have created an arms race in trying to acquire the best restaurants, sports teams, cafeterias, gyms, buildings and dorms all in order to lure students; the more students that apply to a school, the higher its ranking goes. The competition over creating the best-of-everything creates a system where colleges are motivated to spend more money, and with an overabundance of potential students, colleges have no intentions of ending the spending wars. Ehrenberg compares the university system to professional sports. Since the 1970s, the number of professional sports teams has increased exponentially, but so has spending and the costs are transferred to the fans.

However, another model exists outside the U.S. To study politics at Oxford for an overseas student would cost $l9,398 in tuition for the year — roughly half of what Emory or a comparative school costs. I recently talked to a Scottish classmate of mine who is here for a year from University of St. Andrews. He said that St. Andrews and other British schools would offer the same academic experience but would have no sports teams, no multi-million dollar student centers or gyms, no luxurious classrooms, no apartment style housing, etc. Without those features, the British colleges are able to keep their costs down.

In the end, as much as I would like to blame the administration and professors and whoever makes the decision how to spend our tuition, I believe the real problem is me. I came to Emory because it was so expensive. I was impressed with a library that had two monitors per computer and DVDs for rent, a gym with a climbing wall and an Olympic-sized swimming pool and beautiful new buildings everywhere. I forgot who was going to be paying for all that.

Jonathan Silberman is a College junior from Kensington, M.D.

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