Dissecting the Tuition Hike

Hanlon: He is not a crook.

Hanlon: He is not a crook.

Last month the Board of Trustees approved a tuition hike of 3.8 percent in total, fixing the tuition in total at 66,174. This comes at a time when there is national concern over the price of of a college education. Additionally, in 2013, President Philip Hanlon, pledged to keep tuition growth in pace with the rate of inflation. For comparison, the national inflation rate in the previous calendar year was 1.4 percent.   

The best way to conceptualize price hikes is change over time. Consider, for example, that from 2004 to 2012 the annual price of a Dartmouth education increased by roughly 70 percent – a staggering figure compared to virtually any other commodity. Imagine, if our GDP had increased by that amount: there would be more jobs waiting for college students than even a Bernie Sanders presidency promises to conjure up. A 70 percent price hike in a dozen years is perhaps to be expected by drug users if Trump ever end up building his wall (The Review is officially agnostic as to that question). But what are students getting in exchange for all of that money? Are classes 64 percent better than they were in 2004? Are the Choates 64 percent more comfortable than 2004? (The Review can confirm that this is definitely not the case). Food is 62 percent more expensive – but does it really taste 62 percent better? The Math majors among you rightly wonder how overall tuition has increased by 70 percent. There has been a 674 percent – you read that correctly – increase in fees since 2004. If in the next twelve years we continue to increase fees at this rate, it will cost roughly 111,000 dollars to send a student to Dartmouth and about ten percent of that will be “fees.”

In response, the College touts lower growth rates in tuition compared to a decade ago. This is hardly a convincing response. For one, the general trend of spending growth in the US economy has also declined. And further, Dartmouth is more expensive compared to peer institutions in the Ivy League like Columbia or Harvard. But does anyone seriously believe that Hanover is as expensive as New York or Boston? Two are located in global cities, the third is situated in a quiet New England idyll. And further still, it is absurd for the College to pat itself on the back when the growth of a cost of Dartmouth has outpaced almost every other economic good.

Admittedly, this article cannot include a complete criticism of our pervasive administrative bloat, simply for reasons of space – that is not to say, however, that we won’t try. Among the reasons behind the tumefied costs of attending Dartmouth are an increase in PR-oriented, cosmetic changes to the college, a locust-like plague of marginally productive staffers, governmental compliance costs, and an the fundamental nature of teaching.

There has been a proliferation of cosmetic measures touted to remedy the problem without actually moving Dartmouth forward. Purchasing clean energy credits may make us feel better about our socially progressive and environmentally aware selves, but does such action really help educate undergraduates? Is it right to forego additional scholarship funds or some other form of aide in favor of pet projects and proverbial bridges to nowhere? The budget should not be used to make progressives feel better about themselves but to actually educate people.  Unfortunately, however, the same people who decry rising tuition under Bernie Sanders placards one day will about-face and righteously demand money for an obscure, mopic and very limited focus such as the anime society. In an ideal world, this inconsistency would verge on the tolerable. But we don’t live in Bernieland and certainly don’t have an inexhaustible supply of cash to dispense on every obscure “mandatory” expenditure.  

Another cause is staffing levels. The accumulation of new deans of various aspects of student and campus life is compounded by the proliferation of various vice, associate, and assistant positions underneath them. Amid the continued anguish screeching for diversity and inclusion, the creation of various administrators such as the Diversity and Inclusivity Office and The Office of Pluralism and Leadership (OPAL) seek to expand their control of student life. Despite the bevy of gender, race and sexuality programs, racial tensions and the continued balkanization of the ‘social’ Ivy continues to escalate. The more we spend, the worse it gets. The metastasis of new positions reflects an attempt to be seek greater and greater control of adult student life, without actually producing results that justify their continual encroachment. Rather than enhancing the student experience, these positions inadvertently (or maybe not) deprive the college of its unique character and endearing qualities. A blizzard of bureaucratic regulation and programs is fundamentally altering the College. The same rigor and discipline that the administration has applied to Dartmouth’s academics needs to be applied to the administration itself. The continual increase in budget hikes and marginally beneficial administrative bloat is symptomatic of an aversion to taking bold risks. The Dartmouth budget represents the priorities of the President and current leadership.

Dartmouth needs to reflect upon its current array of expenses, and ultimately justify the continuation of programs and processes in their current state. Initiatives to have each department re-allocate 1.5 percent of current budgets are a positive first step. However, half-measures are alone are inadequate to alleviate Dartmouth of its considerable organizational debt. If Hanlon truly wants to move Dartmouth forward, he will need to swing a lot harder.

The College does have legitimate concerns and justifications for the increased expense. The federal government has increasingly burdened the college with a multiplicity of accountability and record-keeping requirements. These numerous mandates have buried Dartmouth under an ocean of paperwork and record keeping, dramatically driving up the cost of traditional academic activities like applying for and facilitating research grants. Here it is not the College’s bureaucrats at fault, but rather a different set of  bureaucrats – those who work for the governmental. It is an open question which category does less work.

There is also an issue of resource reallocation. As Departments like Economics and Computer Science get increasingly flooded by eager students, The College should be willing to shift resources to accommodate demand. Current enthusiasm is leading to increasing class sizes. Their popularity is a sign of the department’s success and quality, and should serve as encouragement to continue good work. If future demand is not met, Dartmouth risks calling in question the hallmark of our brand and our main differentiator within the Ivy League – small undergraduate classes and personal attention from professors. The College risks crowding out its main mission if action is not taken. Bureaucrats are nothing if not self-perpetuating, and the inertial mass of a lumbering administration and internal politics makes nimble reforms an increasingly difficult task. The College has to be willing to redirect its resources and focus.

The economics of education also make this problem difficult to rectify. Teaching at Dartmouth has remained an extremely labor intensive discipline, with any budget slack going to smaller class sizes and more seminars. Consequently, we have not seen the same level of productivity improvements seen in other tasks that utilize more technology and capital equipment. It is inherently far more difficult to make a student twice as smart or a teacher twice as good at giving lectures than it is to make a faster computer. Thus as prices in other sectors continue to fall and productivity increases, Dartmouth must compensate with higher salaries and price increases above the general price level. The question that still needs to be asked is why has not the same technological and capital improvements made in other sectors of the economy been applied to Dartmouth? It is not an iron law that the process of teaching and research remain eternally the same. Other industries continue to successfully grapple with this difficult problem and college education should be no different. This is a difficult problem, and we hope Dartmouth will become a leader in addressing it with innovative, new ideas that will improve quality and contain costs.

Dartmouth is lucky. Both parents and prospective students apply in ever larger droves, and the endowment continues to grow, bolstered by alumni donations. There is no immediate reason to change. To the contrary, it appears society is placing an even greater premium on a Dartmouth education. There is little pressure to adapt or improve. Yet as a member of the Ivy League, Dartmouth should not settle for mediocrity but continue to strive for excellence. Dartmouth should not idle in mediocrity just because there is no present emergency, but instead focus on relentless efficiency and self-improvement.

The college is presently at a fundamental crossroads. Towards which end does the college exist? Is the college to cater to students, or administrators? Is our institution to be an institution of undergraduate-focused higher learning, or a vehicle for the institutionalization of bureaucratic mediocrity? Are we to be a college, or an employment agency? The answer should be obvious – Dartmouth College is a College. We need to return her to that purpose. To do so would not even be exceptionally complicated; it is resolve that is missing, not ideas. Parkhurst would do well to reflect on the “Alma Mater.” Some absent New Hampshire Granite might yet perhaps be rediscovered.

Financial retrenchment is never easy. Yet, as the College enters the waning years of Philip Hanlon’s inelegant ministrations, the question of his legacy looms large. Will history look back kindly on President Hanlon?  One of many uncomfortable inheritances from the Hanlon years could well be the bloated state of the administration. The same man who shabbily banished hard alcohol from the college will leave her administrative ranks pathetically bloated. One wonders if the hard alcohol ban applies to their offices at Collis — bloat is a well-known side effect of drinking only beer.