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Dan Davidson '11.5: Raising tuition both unrealistic and unwise

It was refreshing to read Susannah Kroeber '11 argue that Brown should raise tuition ("Raising our Brown taxes," Oct. 7), a stance I can't recall ever hearing support for. Yet while I applaud her willingness to stake out an unpopular position, I must take issue with some of the assumptions her column makes.

For starters, drastically increasing tuition would do far more damage to the school than could be made up for through increased financial aid or anything else that revenue could pay for. Students who can foot their whole tuition often choose Brown from an array of top schools that accept them. Holding all else equal, significantly increasing our tuition would push many of these students elsewhere. It's naive to imagine people will simply write off an extra $10,000 or more a year to come here — even if they can afford it — when other options exist.

The real flaw with Kroeber's argument is that she assumes our tuition is being used maximally. In suggesting that tuition be raised to help bolster financial aid, she fails to account for the very real possibility that such money could instead be squeezed out of existing tuition by improving the University's efficiency.

Indeed, underpinning the many columns that appear on this page lambasting this and that particular move by the administration is the simple truth that Brown cannot prove what the real cost of educating one of us is. Sure, there are all sorts of costs associated with running the school, but tuition continues to rise much faster than inflation, and aside from new facilities, nothing significant about our education seems to change from year to year.

The higher education price bubble won't last forever. Tuition is already so high that low-cost competitors are springing up and sticking around. The Internet makes it easy for schools to completely eliminate the overhead costs associated with maintaining a campus like Brown's, and online or community colleges can offer many of the same introductory courses we take for a fraction of the price.

Eventually we will reach a tipping point when the cache of the Ivy League no longer outweighs the exorbitant tuition. Society is already advancing toward that point. The Supreme Court may remain dominated by Ivy Leaguers, but top professionals no longer hail exclusively from a few select schools. As the country's business and civic leadership diversifies, schools like Brown will no longer be able to play their highest trump card: that going elsewhere would be giving up the assurance of a successful career and network of powerful contacts.

I believe Brown should position itself for this inevitable future by lowering the cost of undergraduate education and focusing on the aspects of the school that will continue to draw students in a world with high-quality, low-cost colleges. Driving down the cost of a Brown education is important because lower tuition will help attract the best students, for whom tens of thousands in savings over four years could be the tiebreaker when making a tough choice between Brown and another comparable school. Furthermore, working to maintain our standards at an increasingly lower cost will help prepare the school for downward price pressure.

Even if tuition remained flat, lowering the real cost of education would benefit the school. Every dollar Brown can save through improvements in the efficiency of education can be put to use improving dorm conditions or building new facilities.

Even today, one could make a strong argument that it's not "worth it" to attend Brown over your home state's university. But people still flock here because the school offers things that can't be found elsewhere. Brown must continue to focus on those features that can only be utilized by coming to Providence. In a future where students will see significantly less difference than we do between coming to Brown, going to their state universities, or even taking classes online, Brown will have to convince people of the added value coming here provides.

Allow me to illustrate my point. Like many students, I had to take an introductory statistics course to fulfill a concentration requirement. While I enjoyed the course, what I learned consisted strictly of rote skills. Why not outsource classes like these? I could have learned the same material at a community college or through an online course. The money Brown saved by not running these types of classes on campus could then be used for other purposes, like luring a renowned professor to teach classes where students could take their basic skills, already picked up off-campus, to the next level.

This is just one example, and perhaps an extreme one. I think it demonstrates, however, that opportunities do exist to reduce the cost of a Brown education. If the University took on the challenge of lowering the price tag for a degree, it would do a great deal of good for both the institution and the student body.

 

Dan Davidson '11.5 is a political science concentrator from Atlanta, Ga. He can be reached at daniel_davidson@brown.edu


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