Funding a Brown education is already hard, and it isn't getting any easier. The Corporation just accepted a 3.5 percent increase in tuition for the next academic year, raising total undergraduate tuition and fees to a voluminous $53,136. And that's only for next year. Given the Corporation's past increases in tuition, it is sure to continue going up. How high it will go is impossible to know, as the University reserves the right to increase tuition on current students and even students on study abroad programs.
The expense created by continually raising tuition is not insignificant. It especially hurts students whose current finances are sound but whose financial outlook is uncertain. Given the economic turmoil of the past three years and the impending fights over budgets around this country in the next few months, this is precisely the wrong time to increase the burden on students.
President Obama froze the salaries of government employees for the next two years, which means that while the tuition of the children of government employees will increase, their salaries will not. And with the looming showdown over the federal budget deficit and the threat of a government shutdown, families that rely on government subsidies — Social Security, unemployment, federal grants — or government salaries, could suddenly be out of luck.
The children of state employees, including the sons and daughters of millions of teachers, are in equally dire straits. Governors around the country are threatening not only to slash budgets and lay off teachers, but limit collective bargaining, which means weakening the ability of teachers to negotiate future higher wages for themselves. This is a crisis and it will mean more middle-class families will struggle to make ends meet for years to come.
Everyone at Brown surely knows someone who will undoubtedly be affected by the onslaught of cuts. While it is too soon to know who will get laid off, whose salaries will be frozen or reduced and who might survive unscathed, one thing is for certain for these families — tuition goes up while income stagnates at best.
And the pain of tuition hikes is not limited to current students. A recently accepted early decision applicant is already locked in for the coming academic year, despite the fact that he pledged to Brown when he thought the tuition was only an outstanding $51,339. If tuition were to keep rising at the same rate, by senior year that imaginary student could be paying almost $59,000.
A future Brown student might have some money saved up in bonds, certificates of deposits or in stocks. At today's dismal rates — Bank of America features one year certificates of deposit accruing 0.60 percent annual interest — a student whose family has been saving for college since birth will find that tuitions are steadily becoming less affordable.
Even the stock market is not such a good bet. Despite months of growth, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is only back to where it was in January of 2007. That means that the average rate of return on stocks for the past four years has been nil. Meanwhile, Brown tuition in 2007 was $43,754, almost $10,000 less than it will be next year.
Fortunately for all those hardworking middle-class families that have been saving every nickel to fund an elite education, there is a much better investment — take an elaborate and expensive vacation and maybe buy a car while you're at it. Flush away any hint of having money in the bank and Brown will be forced to subsidize your tuition bill with financial aid. A family that makes under $100,000 a year will not have any loan component of a financial aid package, and can expect to get a big discount of over half the cost of tuition.
It is this dichotomy of rising tuitions compounded by rising financial aid packages to offset the increased tuition that is eating away at the old middle-class standbys of college trust funds and savings accounts. It no longer makes sense to save for college when you're a family making under $100,000 a year because any extra assets will be accounted for in the formula of financial aid.
The University must face the fact that it is raising tuitions on families precisely at a time when their economic futures are least certain. It is increasing a major expense while salaries are barely budging. And it is putting in place a perverse set of incentives that could discourage families from saving for college. A Brown education is becoming increasingly inaccessible to a middle class that does not qualify for substantial financial aid, and yet does not really have the money to afford Brown's exorbitant tuition.
Ethan Tobias '12 wonders what happened to all the savings from last year's budget cuts and layoffs. He can be reached at Ethan_Tobias@brown.edu