On Tuesday, Feb. 7, Stanford’s Board of Trustees announced a 3 percent tuition increase and a 3.5 percent room and board increase for undergraduates. Graduate programs all saw a similar tuition increase, with School of Medicine tuition experiencing the steepest rise at 3.5 percent. Viewed in isolation, a tuition increase of a few percent (roughly a thousand dollars) is not that concerning. At least this year, tuition increases are roughly on par with inflation. But consider that for the 1996-97 academic year, undergraduate tuition was $20,490. Now, fifteen years later, it is almost double that at $40,050. When adjusting for inflation, the tuition price has gone up more than 11,000 dollars.
Not surprisingly, when announcing this year’s tuition and room and board increase, Chair of the Board of Trustees Leslie Hume made sure to emphasize that Stanford remains committed to offering one of the most competitive financial aid packages in the nation. The Daily Editorial Board applauds financial aid increases for easing the burden on many struggling families, making the Stanford dream theoretically in reach for all accepted students. However, that fact should not excuse rising costs that, over the years, have been significant; just above the aid cutoff, families have to make sizable sacrifices to pay the over $200,000 cost for a Stanford degree. Not to mention that Stanford loses a portion of accepted students to less prestigious schools that have lower tuition and/or offer significant merit scholarships.
Although tuition increases for all colleges taken together have risen only slightly faster than inflation, tuition increases in the top 20 percent of colleges have risen considerably. It seems that $50,000 is becoming the norm among top schools, and costs are only going up. Yes, families are still apparently willing to pay the high price. But what other options does a high school graduate have? The 21st century workplace demands that candidates have bachelor’s degrees, at minimum, to be competitive. Increasingly, a school’s selectivity matters, as well. Universities can continually raise the cost of higher education, and families have little alternative but to hand over their money assuming the students will break even on the investment. Stanford is no exception; despite its tuition increases, the number of applications has only increased.
Top schools are caught in a vicious cycle to stay competitive; each year, they must offer more and more to attract students and faculty, and most already spend far more per student than the tuition level would suggest. Stanford’s most recent tuition increase will cover the rising costs of salaries and health care. Were these costs to remain constant, faculty would still be relatively well off, but Stanford would become a less attractive option for top research talent, who could simply choose one of Stanford’s peer schools offering a better package.
To attract the best students in the face of rising tuition, Stanford must perpetually increase its financial aid packages and invest in expensive new facilities and programs to stay competitive. All of this means that, to remain one of the premier universities in the nation, Stanford must never regress and must always approximately match what its peer schools offer. Other top schools face the same dilemma, and these costs are being increasingly passed on to students and their families.
In this higher education arms race, it is hard to see how tuition prices can level out. To help rein in rising costs, President Barack Obama has recently proposed awarding less federal funding, such as work-study aid, to schools that have significant tuition increases. Some higher education experts have criticized his plan for, among other things, not differentiating between net tuition costs (which factor in financial aid) and the sticker price.
Although his plan may be flawed, it is correct in its assessment that the status quo is unsustainable. On the one hand, popular outrage is palpable from students who can get into the most selective schools but have difficulty managing the increasing costs, even after relatively generous financial aid. At the same time, these schools face no shortage of applicants, students demand more resources and amenities from them, and prestigious employers reward graduates. Something needs to be done, and the first step is an open and honest dialogue about how our society values an elite college education.