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Rising tuition: A reason to get riled up?

In a 1997 column in the Chicago Tribune, Mary Schmich offered some advice to recent graduates. She told them to “accept certain unalienable truths,” the first of which was, simply, “prices will rise.”

Saint Louis University has held true to Schmich’s adage. On Tuesday, President Lawrence Biondi, S.J., announced in a letter that undergraduate tuition would increase by 3.9 percent next year. Schmich’s column was addressed to recent graduates, but in this case, it seems that future students are the ones who need advice.

Nearly 4 percent? That seems like a large figure, especially when you set it next to the even larger figure of $34,740, the undergraduate tuition for the 2012-13 academic year. Some quick math tells us that tuition will increase $1,354.86, a substantial amount by any metric.

Given those intimidating digits, it seems fair for students to be indignant. And even some professors have expressed concerns that the price of higher education, especially at a private, four-year university like SLU, is rising at an unacceptable level.

Yet the data shows that SLU is not exceptional when it comes to rising prices. According to the College Board, the average increase in tuition and fees at private nonprofit four-year universities and colleges for the 2012-13 academic year was 4.2 percent. And much of that price increase only goes to cover the effects of inflation; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Consumer Price Index rose 1.7 percent in 2012. That means that most goods became 1.7 percent more expensive, so tuition also has to increase just to keep pace.

Moreover, SLU’s tuition increased by 3.8 percent last year, and by 4 percent in the two preceding years, so this isn’t an unprecedented jump by any means. So what’s the big deal?

Part of the problem might be the way this tuition hike has been framed. Faculty salaries were frozen last year, but next year’s budget will break that ice by adding a compensation pool valued at 4 percent of the budget.

That figure is very similar in size to the 3.9 percent tuition hike, giving the impression that the university is paying faculty more only to have students foot the bill.

This might not be an entirely accurate interpretation of the facts. As previously explained, the tuition hike should probably have been expected, and the fact that it roughly corresponds with the proposed compensation pool may be incidental.

Nevertheless, SLU’s budget might deserve some scrutiny. Although SLU’s tuition level is on par with national trends, that doesn’t mean that it is fair. The cost of higher education has ballooned in recent decades, well beyond the rate of inflation. Moreover, SLU needs to clarify its long-term goals. Will our school be a premier research institution, or an affordable Midwestern university? These goals aren’t necessarily incompatible, but it will take some shrewd budgeting to meet them both. Moreover, we cannot allow our academic programs and our library to be under-funded, otherwise the education our students are buying will lose value even as its price rises.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with SLU’s budget isn’t the numbers themselves, it’s the inaccessibility of those numbers. It’s been mentioned that the university’s budget deserves scrutiny, but the budget cannot be criticized if the data remains in the dark.

The principal recommendation of Schmich’s column was rather simple: Wear sunscreen. So while prices may rise, you can always take advantage of that piece of wisdom… that is, if you can afford sunscreen after the tuition hike. If not, you’ll just have to stick to the darker parts of our university. Oh, and while you’re in those dark corners, see if you can dig up some details of SLU’s budget. It’s time to bring the data into the daylight.

 

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