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Tuition has layers

and | Friday, February 27, 2015

Early in the movie Shrek, Lord Farquaad looks down from his tower over the town of Duloc and addresses the knights who will go on his behalf to rescue Princess Fiona from the castle where she has been locked away. “Some of you may die,” he laments, “but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.” On the ground, one of his subjects holds up a sign reading “applause.”

The Observer published a ritual of a story Feb. 12 concerning the University’s annual tuition increase. The Observer has run this story every year that we have been here because Notre Dame has increased tuition every year that we have been here. This year’s story was accompanied by a single chart showing the percentage rate at which tuition has increased in each year since 2004. These percentages have declined. As Austin Hagwood pointed out in his Feb. 17 column and as anyone with a high school math background understands, looking only at annual percentage increases ignores the real story, namely that Notre Dame’s tuition and fees have doubled since 2005. Add room and board to that and hold annual increases constant at 3.7 percent (a 55-year low), next year’s class of 2019 will be the first to see its cost of attendance break $60,000 as freshmen and the first to break $70,000 when they become seniors. Tuition alone will surpass $100,000 in 2032.

In February 2014, The Observer supplemented its coverage with an interview with University Vice President for Finance John Sejdinaj (B.A., ’84). He is a longtime board member of the Alliance for Catholic Education and South Bend Center for the Homeless

“We don’t want to be too high, and we don’t want to be too low versus our peer groups. So we’re always watching what our peers are doing and where we’re at,” he said about tuition.

Let that sink in.

In The Observer’s 2012 tuition story, University Executive Vice President John Affleck Graves echoed those sentiments.

“The problem is, [parents] send us the children because they think we can give a high quality education, we can give a good residence life experience, so if we don’t do that just because we want to save some money, in the end I think we’re shortchanging the students,” Graves said. “And that’s the last thing we want to do.”

So the response from administration officials to questions about Notre Dame’s $62,000 price tag has leaned heavily on “all my friends are doing it” and “it’s for the kids.”

Apart from touting the 3.7 percent figure, a statistic which loses any meaning in the context of rising absolute costs, the University rightly points out that over the long term, financial aid has increased at a greater rate than tuition.What is unfortunate is that there apparently hasn’t been a corresponding effort to reduce costs.

As students who intend to give to the University after we graduate but with concerns about this issue, we felt compelled to investigate. This week, we aggregated the University’s financial statements from the 2000-2014 Annual Reports. Adjusting for inflation, the University’s total operating expenses are up 67 percent since 2000. The University spent $1.007 billion to exist last year. “Academic Support” expenditures, a separate category from “Instruction,” went up 54 percent in 2012-13 alone and were $94.2 million in 2014.

Of the seven categories of expenses in the University’s financial statements, all but one have increased by 47 percent or greater (in real dollars) since 2000. The only one which has remained stable is “Public Service,” down 2.67 percent since 2000.

Cost-control problems are not unique to Notre Dame, but we think they are symptomatic and illustrative of the University’s many disparate goals.

Notre Dame wants to be at least three things: a highly ranked national research university, a university with some rooting in the liberal arts and a Catholic university.

The first goal requires us to recruit and retain respected faculty, house various Centers for X and Institutes of Y and have top graduate programs. These need to be funded, and collecting $262 million in tuition and fees every year is a start. Pacing tuition with other prestigious schools is also a way of signaling our own merits, as suggested by Mr. Sejdinaj above.

The second goal explains our 14-course core curriculum and president who is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. It requires a student body that values and feels capable of pursuing a liberal education.

The third goal requires some kind of institutional commitment to a Catholic worldview and holistic understanding of education. It ties the University to the teachings of Christ, who was skeptical of worldly power, and devotes us to fighting for the disadvantaged in some way.

Individually, these goals are admirable. Taken together, we submit, there’s an undeniable tension between them we have yet to reconcile.

Our experience as Arts and Letters students has convinced us the biggest deterrent for students considering the college is a paralyzing fear that without an “employable” degree, they will struggle to pay back loans or satisfy parents’ expectations of some financial return on their $240,000 investment. While we reject this line of thinking, we are acutely aware of and sympathetic to that fear. Using the University’s 2014 published figures, we estimated that those making between $80,000 and $160,000 can expect to shell out about 20 percent of their pre-tax income after financial aid.

Very high tuition might also run against our Catholic commitment. There is a certain ironic tension between the amount of excellent work Notre Dame does here and abroad to fight poverty and the fact our student body is overwhelmingly upper-class. This fact in part reflects underlying structural inequalities in American K-12 education. It is nonetheless foolish to proclaim the Catholic call to serve the poor and have a cost structure that scares lower-income students out of applying, squeezes students in the middle brackets and subsists on a the requisite number of wealthy, full-paying students.

In a non-Dreamworks du Lac, increasing tuition year after year makes some aspirations easier and compromises others. After several Excel books and three days of conversing, we admit we do not have an answer to this problem. However we believe it is worthwhile for our University and others like it to acknowledge publicly that it exists. Notre Dame is not the sole perpetrator, nor will it be the sole solver of ballooning expenses and intercollegiate arms-racing. But the social costs are real, and the moral ground is shaky. Don’t hold up the “applause” signs blindly.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Caton

Alex is a junior political science major living in the caves and ditches of St. Edward's Hall. He has written for the Viewpoint section since spring 2013

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