by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"It is quality rather than quantity that matters.".... ....Seneca.
Commentary of the Day - February 20, 2007: The High-Price Leaders.
An "op-ed" piece in the February 18, 2007 issue of the Los Angeles Times by staff writer Peter Hong caused the IP to do a double take. Hong pointed out that George Washington University (GW to anyone who has lived in the Washington, DC area), which is located in the Foggy Bottom section of our nation's capital, now is the most expensive undergraduate institution in the United States. At $50,000 a year for tuition and mandatory fees (including housing), GW now charges the highest tuition and mandatory fees of any college or university in the country.
One might have expected to find some of the "Ivies" or top-ranked science and engineering schools such as MIT and Caltech leading the tuition race. But surprisingly, the highest undergraduate tuition rates last year were found at places like Landmark College in Vermont, GW, University of Richmond, Sarah Lawrence, Kenyon, Vassar, Trinity, Bennington, Simon's Rock College of Bard, and Hamilton College. Most of these institutions are reasonably well-respected, but not exactly at the top of the heap in academic quality. Among national universities, GW is tied with Syracuse University for 52nd place in the 2007 U.S. News and World Report rankings. Among national liberal arts colleges the University of Richmond tied for 34th place with the University of the South, Sarah Lawrence ended up in a three-way tie for 45th place with Rhodes College and Gettysburg College, Kenyon tied for 32nd place with Holy Cross, Vassar did a bit better tying for 12th place with Claremont McKenna College, Trinity came in 30th, Bennington was rated 91st, Simon's Rock didn't even make the top 100, and Hamilton came in 17th.
The bottom line is that none of these colleges and universities that are charging the highest tuition rates in the country were ranked among the top ten in academic quality. As Hong notes in his "op-ed" piece, the current median income for US households is slightly more than $46,000 per year, so only the very wealthiest families can afford to send their children to colleges and universities with tuition and fees than approach $50,000 per year. Even relatively well-to-do families with more than one child in college would be hard-pressed to cover costs this high. To be sure, most of these pricey colleges and universities offer financial aid packages to many of their students. For example as many as 40% of GW's students receive some kind of financial aid. But often that aid includes substantial student loans at relatively high interest rates, which often leave the student heavily in debt upon graduation.
There might be some excuse for these very high tuition rates if the money was being used to improve academic quality. However, it is often the case that the money is not being used to hire better faculty members, or to build new library or laboratory facilities. Instead, at many of the priciest colleges the extra money is being used to provide extra "amenities" for students. These are things like state-of-the-art health clubs, athletic facilities, and luxurious housing accommodations. University and college presidents often claim that such amenities are needed to attract students. A good example is the $70 million athletic center that Kenyon College -- one of our high price leaders -- recently opened on its campus. This ultra-modern 263,000 square foot building (larger than a Wal-Mart Super Center) does attract students and faculty members alike at the 1,600 student campus; and, it even includes a 125 seat lecture hall where a few classes are held. But on a campus Kenyon's size $70 million could have gone a long way towards moving Kenyon up from 32nd place in the academic quality race.
Likewise at GW it seems that the increases in tuition and fees are doing little to improve its dismal 52nd place ranking in the quality stats. At GW the number of part-time faculty members continues to rise while the campus itself becomes more luxurious by the day. But whatever GW and Kenyon and the rest of these high price leaders may lack in academic quality they certainly makes up for in nerve. Where else but in America would the 52nd best university or the 32nd best four-year college have the chutzpah to charge such outrageous tuition rates.
Perhaps it's time for the parents who foot these large tuition bills to show a little outrage of their own.