Tuition Skyrockets as Staff Increases [Print]

We’ve made it, boys and girls. We’ve made it. We’re over the top. We have faced the great challenge and left it bleeding in the sands of the area. We have achieved The Big Six Oh Oh Oh Oh.

Sixty thousand dollars per year in combined tuition plus room and board. To be exact, $60,201. Last year, students had to pay $58,000 for the right to earn credits here, but the past 12 months have shown that amount to be totally insufficient, and so at their last meeting the College’s illustrious trustees approved another hike of 3.8%, well above the inflation rate of 2%. The new number almost boggles the mind, exceeding the median American household income by nearly $8,000. A full-priced degree will cost around $250,000, with the price soaring above $300,000 if one has the temerity to be an engineering major. To put that in perspective, that’s enough to buy a decent house in a cheap market, a terrible house in an expensive one, or over 400,000 Snack Pack pudding cups if bought in bulk.

This number puts Dartmouth firmly in the top 10 among American colleges (though it cannot top Sarah Lawrence’s hilarious $64,000 price point), but Dartmouth stands out from the pack by being one the few rural colleges to rise so high. Nobody is shocked to see an array of New York schools (Sarah Lawrence is in Bronxville) in the top 10 surrounded by other big-city brethren. Dartmouth cannot protect itself with the same excuse. While Hanover itself is a very costly location thanks to the College, costs drop rapidly upon leaving town and Lebanon is below the American average. Whatever the reasons for Dartmouth’s high costs, it can’t blame it on where the Rev. Eleazar decided to set up shop.

What, then, is responsible for Dartmouth eating money like a busted Pac-Man machine? There are several causes.

Astoundingly enough (though not surprisingly), the actual per-student expenditure by Dartmouth is well above even what tuition can finance. Even if every one of the college’s 6000 undergrads and graduate students paid full freight, it would “only” add up to about $360 million dollars, but in fact due to very generous financial aid and (officially) need-blind admissions the College only collects around $160 million. Dartmouth, on the other hand, managed to blow through $775 million last year, over $2 million a day and nearly as high as the GDP of Grenada, a country of 110,000 that Reagan knocked over in 1983. That amounts to about $150,000 per student, per year.

Where does all of this money go? Predictably, the biggest consumer of resources is human capital: The College has over 1,000 faculty and 3,328 non-faculty employees. Combined, they devour $439 million a year in wages, salaries, and benefits. This is a very large number, even for the Ivy League. Brown University has 2,000 more undergrads than we do, and more graduate students, yet it gets by with fewer non-faculty employees, employing 3,227. Cornell has 8,081 non-academic staff, less than two and a half times Dartmouth’s total for a university with almost three and a half times as many students. Princeton and Harvard employ staff at a higher rate, but Princeton also has the largest per-student endowment in the world to back up that outlay, and Harvard is not far behind. 

Not only does the College employ a legion (quite literally; a Roman legion was about 4,500 soldiers), but said legion is incredibly expensive, once again just like the old Roman ones. Whereas old Roman soldiers were recompensed with booty and land grants, Dartmouth’s benefits from incredibly good benefits all the way down the ladder. Even an entry level food services employee will take home over $15 an hour from his first day, with a raise after nine months, several weeks of paid leave, an additional pension contribution, and an extremely generous health plan that requires very little employee contribution. The result of all of this is that the average cost in wage and benefits per Dartmouth employee is just over $100,000, all for a workforce that lives in the Upper Valley, where the cost of living is higher than the American average but significantly cheaper than Cambridge or Princeton. Brown’s employees, who live in similarly-priced Providence, cost just $89,000 apiece, thanks to the school spending $40 million less than Dartmouth every year on benefits.. At Cornell the price is about $90,000 per employee. That’s still high, but even that $10,000 difference could be a huge boon for students if applied here. Since Dartmouth has somehow managed to have one employee for every single undergraduate, matching Brown’s pay could enable the school to cut tuition by $10,000 in one fell swoop. 

The mythical administration building.

Such a change is eminently achievable. The gross size of Dartmouth’s staff is a recent development, as well as a return to form after a few years of badly-needed cuts. In the 1990’s, with a student body of almost the same size, the College got by with with barely 2,000 staff, and somehow did not collapse into oblivion or get expelled from the Ivy League. Nevertheless, the College allowed itself to be sucked into the cycle of expansion. In 2012 Dartmouth added another 153 people to its administrative payroll, taking the total number of non-teaching personnel to 3328.

Perhaps such numbers sound a little abstract, so let’s put it into straight financial terms. If the College averages $100,000 in expenses per employee, and the College has 5,987 total students (including graduate students), then each additional employee the College hires costs the students an average of $16.70. Not a lot, but multiplied by 153 new non-faculty staff it adds up to $2,555 per student, amusingly close to the $2,200 price hike just approved (and even closer if one makes the reasonable assumption that new hires earn somewhat less than the mean Dartmouth salary). Does this year’s College feel $2,500 better than last year’s College? Would the College become simply unbearable had those largely invisible hires not been made? Your call.

Some of the new jobs do have a dark humor to them. The College’s opaquely-named Advancement Division, whose duties include alumni relations and PR, added 16 people last year, so the snarkier sorts could say that Andrew Lohse cost every student at Dartmouth $267.20 a year. 

Looking for some kind of official answer regarding the College’s continued cost spiral, I sent off some emails to various departments in the vague hope of talking to somebody. An email to the Advancement Division turned up nothing, but another to the Provost’s Office struck…well, not gold, but some other metal of solid value. Tin, maybe. I was all scheduled to meet with Interim Provost Wybourne when fate intervened and he had to jet off to London, making any direct communication difficult to say the least. Not one to give up, I pressed on and secured a few minutes with Martha Austin, Associate Vice Provost for Government Relations.

Speaking with her didn’t lead to any information on hiring decisions or overall expenses or, well, anything that I was hoping to find out, but I did learn a little more about whom the College was hiring. According to her, the 76-person ($1269.20!) expansion of the provost’s office outlined in official College documents is actually a myth. Twenty-seven people were transferred over from the medical school, and nine from Facilities Operations and Management. Of twenty-one hires in IT, 12 were temporary to help with the creation of the new website and other projects. So really, she said, the Provost’s office has expanded very little relative to its size.

A savage publication deadline prevented me from more closely auditing Ms. Austin’s claims, but a superficial glance makes them appear plausible. The Geisel School is the largest employment subdivision on the College’s fact sheet yet added few employees last year, which could reflect reorganizations that transferred employees out. Even if Austin can shift blame away from the provost’s office, however, it doesn’t mean there is no blame to be had. No matter how much reorganization the College has undergone, the fact is that this year it employed 153 more non-academic staff than it did the year before. Even if some of them are temporary, so what?  The soon-to-be-University is not going through an exceptional expansion right now. The College will always have temps and this year’s wave will be replaced by a new one in time. It may as well be considered a fluctuating year-to-year expense.

The consistent year-to-year expansion of the College’s workforce reflects the other trend driving high costs, the continual expansion and reinvention of the College itself. The College truly renovates at a furious pace. The past few years have seen the Black Family Visual Arts Center, a very costly renovation of the Hanover Inn, and internal revamps of the food court and Collis Student Center. The coming years will see even more drastic expansion, with a North Campus Academic Center and additional buildings at the Medical Center projected to cost over $150 million. This building is so constant and high-cost that the College has to borrow millions; the school’s debt load has ballooned over the past 15 years by close to a billion dollars; interest alone on the College’s debt is around $22 million a year, or $3,666 per student.

This expansionist bloat is a sad state of affairs born from the incentives created by modern careerist resume-building as well as the academic bubble in general. Your typical provost who aspires to, say, take over a large state university system gains nothing from a resume blip that reads “Maintained top undergraduate teaching rank for 7 years and didn’t screw it up.” They blips blathering about how they led the construction of yet another large academic building or how they “executed the successful rebranding of the College into a University which led to a 16.3% increase in international applicants.” Like an Ouroboros, the College tries to grow by eating itself.

For the time being, the College can will itself onwards thanks to the striving of upper-middle-class Americans, eager to show their status and success by sending their children to top-ranked schools which they hope will put them on the path to the American elite. It’s not entirely clear how long this cycle can go on before centripetal force tears it apart. If our current rate of tuition growth continues, Dartmouth will cost $100,000 per year in fourteen years. In twenty, it will be at $125,000.

Whenever the cycle finally tails off, it is not clear that the College’s traditional identity will remain. Degrees that cost as much as a house are toxic to a liberal arts vision that seeks to include anybody besides lower earners and the spectacularly wealthy. For the moderately well-off who are a large proportion of the student body, higher prices require an increasingly mercenary approach to the Dartmouth experience. Notions of expanding one’s mind or undertaking challenging scholarship will fall by the wayside as students focus entirely on what will get them into their desired career path, a career path that will necessarily be lucrative. Many bemoan the College’s servile relationship with finance and consulting to the detriment of nearly every other career path, but this is the natural outcome of turning the college into a country club with a six-figure annual membership cost. Students must justify an enormously costly education by entering the most lucrative career fields; choosing to become a journalist, teacher, non-profit worker, or God forbid an academic is a fool’s game.

The College could fix the tuition dilemma in a lot of ways, if it were truly ambitious. Eliminating tuition as Cooper Union and College of the Ozarks have done is an impossible goal, but it’s hardly a stretch to say the College could get the cost of a 4-year education down to $200,000 and keep it there for a while. The college was able to torpedo about 10% of its workforce to deal with the 2008 recession without the sky falling; it could have stayed there rather than going back to its expansionist ways.

Dartmouth should aspire to be the best and biggest liberal arts college in the world. That requires maintaining its traditions, its community, and its strong alumni base. It does not require $60,000 in tuition. If a college seeks to call itself the best undergraduate school in the country, long-term vision is crucial. Dartmouth should show some.

– Blake S. Neff