Administration squelches opportunity for leadership
Right or Wrong?
"Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus." The mountains will be in labor, and will bring forth a ridiculous little mouse.
That line from the Roman poet Horace was brought to mind by the 4.9 percent tuition, room and board increase for 2001-02, to $30,530. It was the lowest percentage increase since 1959 when there was no increase over the previous year.
The increase satisfies the Trustees' mandate that tuition increases be held to about 5 percent. And the administration, especially through the excellent financial aid office, does make commendable efforts to increase scholarships and to reduce student dependence on loans. Unfortunately, the primary form of financial aid remains the student loan.
Given the good intentions of our leaders, why does the increase remind one of Horace's little mouse? Because the administration had an opportunity for leadership here and blew it.
Other institutions acknowledge that the decades-long rise in tuition beyond the inflation rate must be curbed. Williams College, with only 2,000 students, had frozen its tuition for 2000-01. Williams was the first exclusive private college or university in decades to hold the line on tuition. And Princeton, a model for Notre Dame, had held its 2000-01 increase to 3.3 percent, the lowest increase in 30 years.
To freeze tuition, or at least hold its increase within the inflation rate, conveys a symbolic message of openness to non-wealthy students. Williams' freeze of tuition, however, did not start a stampede among major colleges and universities. For 2001-02 Williams had to increase its tuition, room and board, but only by 3 percent, to $32,282. In addition to increasing existing scholarships, Williams has created new aid programs to: reduce loans for all aided students by an average of $1,000 each year; reduce loans for students with the highest need by an additional $500; allow all aided students an additional $500 for books and personal expenses; and reduce by $300 the amount all aided students are expected to earn during the academic year.
Williams President Morton Schapiro described this as the best way to use Williams' "recent increase in wealth to assist the students and families who are making the greatest sacrifices to obtain a Williams education."
Princeton has held its 2001-02 tuition, room and board increase to 3 percent. For any financial need beyond what the student and his family can be expected to pay (calculated under new rules favorable to lower and middle income families), Princeton will provide grants, rather than loans, to make up any shortfall in meeting the student's needs.
The Princeton move "is an extraordinary gesture," said President Arthur Levine of Columbia Teachers College. "[T]here has been good support for poorer students, and wealthy students could afford to pay. But the only way middle-class students could afford to attend these colleges was by taking out huge loans."
Princeton and Williams are still more expensive than Notre Dame. Princeton's endowment is $8 billion, more than double Notre Dame's. So maybe Notre Dame could not have matched those dramatic gestures. Nevertheless, hope had flickered this spring that, just maybe, this would be the year our leaders would reverse the inexorable escalation of the "sticker price" beyond the inflation rate. The tuition, room and board charge, in real money, has more than doubled since Notre Dame proclaimed itself a National Catholic Research University in 1978. Notre Dame's total charge in 1978-79 was $5,180. If it had kept pace with inflation, it would now be $13,468 instead of $30,530.
Money continues to cascade into the University's coffers in record amounts from numerous sources, including the endowment and various contributions. The Generations Campaign, concluded last December 31st, raised $1,061,097,581 (that's $1.06 billion), or $98,249.76 for each of the 10,800 undergrad and grad students now enrolled at Notre Dame. So, some had hoped, perhaps 2001-02 would be the year for this Research University to signal a shift in priorities by freezing tuition or at least holding any increase below this year's 3.7 rise in the Consumer Price Index.
This, however, is where Horace comes in. After abundant publicity celebrating their fundraising successes, our leaders announced the 4.9 percent increase to $30,530, a rise of $1430. That 4.9 percent increase makes the total for 2001-02 $83 less than the $30,613 total it would have been if last year's increase of 5.2 percent had been repeated. Our leaders labored mightily, at least in proclaiming the University's new wealth. And then they brought forth a ridiculous mouse, an $83 reduction in the increase of the gouge, a trifle that was raised to the level of insult when it became the launching pad for self-congratulatory statements by the administration.
Notre Dame should be the national leader, not a timid follower, in making an authentically Catholic education accessible to non-wealthy, qualified students. A tuition freeze, or at least an increase below the inflation rate, would have symbolized a commitment in that direction. Our leaders evidently have other priorities, including principally the pursuit of money in the hunt for ranking and prestige. But we can continue to hope. Maybe next year ...
Professor Emeritus Rice is on the Law School faculty. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears every other Tuesday.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Tuesday, September 4, 2001