Columns, Opinions

Rowland ’17: Questioning the budget

By
op-ed contributor
Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The University released its budget for fiscal year 2018 this week, which unsurprisingly includes tuition increases that outpace inflation by almost twice as much. Because Brown is a tuition-dependent school, especially compared to peers with heftier endowments, this is to be expected. Indeed, reasons cited for the 4 percent increase in tuition included efforts to protect the “long-term health” of the University by growing the endowment to ensure more fruitful returns in the future, according to Provost Richard Locke. But the ways in which we decrease our dependence on tuition deserve scrutiny. This is especially salient considering student protests that call on the University to put its money where its mouth is, so to speak. And in this regard, the University Resource Committee report and subsequent communication on the budget can be misleading.

First, the budgeting report released this week emphasizes the importance of continuing to increase financial aid, especially in order to strengthen the packages offered to middle class students. Given that financial aid for middle class families is a priority among students, it is appropriate and important to channel money in that direction. But, while the University will receive a 6.2 percent increase in revenue from tuition, the financial aid budget will only increase by 1.32 percent. In dollar terms, the aid budget will grow by $1.587 million, while the University receives $20.136 million more in revenue from tuition than it did last year. That math doesn’t add up; someone is paying the difference.

Of course, there is the question of who will be most affected by the tuition increase — it’s hard to feel bad about asking people who already pay the sticker amount to pay a bit more. Still, while the financial aid budget has grown by 7.3 percent on average over the last eight years, the percentage of students on aid has only increased by two percentage points: from 41 to 43 percent. It’s hard to believe that the 57 percent of the student body paying the full price of tuition is not feeling strained by accelerating financial burdens.

Relatedly, though the University announced a 4 percent increase in tuition, the report later shows that it is accompanied by a 6 percent increase in room rate and 6.5 percent increase in board rate, effectively increasing the cost of attending Brown by more than 4 percent. By paying our tuition, we become a captive market for room and board, locking ourselves into an upward spiral of increasing costs. That is, at least until we can go off meal plan or move off campus.

And while Brown has become less dependent on tuition in the long term by paying out $12.7 million less of our endowment to the education and general budget than last fiscal year, the increase in revenue from tuition is almost twice that number. In other words, the extra tuition we’re paying does more than compensate for the endowment-protecting measures the University is emphasizing in this plan. To what ends?

The counterpoint to this might be that this money is used to make important investments in target areas for Brown, such as in diversity and inclusion initiatives. Given the heated debate around the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, this budget is an important opportunity for students to hold the administration accountable to their financial commitment to the mission laid out in the plan. The report does in fact include new appropriations for DIAP implementation, but these funds can’t account for (and in fact, barely dent) the surplus of tuition revenue.

As The Herald previously reported, “The University will allocate $1.5 million toward implementing the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan,” including funding A Day on College Hill travel, boosting diversity in faculty hiring and increasing staffing at centers on campus. This is a sizable and respectable investment, and my argument is not that the contribution is underwhelming. Rather, this contribution to the DIAP is framed as a large use of funds that justifies increases in tuition and overall spending, when in reality, these increases occur in much higher denominations than DIAP funding. Without making assumptions about intent, I would point out that, unlike all the other charts in the URC report, the chart for investment in academic excellence and diversity and inclusion lists dollar amounts in denominations of thousands rather than millions.

I applaud the University on its efforts to depend less on tuition in a quest to achieve longer term self-sufficiency. But, as I’ve learned at Brown, we should never forget to read between the lines. I’ve also learned that Brown students are incredibly invested in thoughtful critiques and analyses of institutions and authority. Here’s a chance to connect those dots.

Lainie Rowland ’17 can be reached at lainie_rowland@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.