To get a sense of how large Yale’s tuition has grown in recent years, consider this: According to the most recent census data, the median household in the United States earns just over $43,000. Next year, Yale College’s term bill will be $41,000. In other words, it costs about as much to go to Yale as the average American family makes in an entire year.
Of course, that comparison only goes so far: Under Yale’s new financial aid plan, that average family would not have to pay anything at all to send a son or daughter here. And given the University’s pledge to cover all demonstrated financial need, many families earning considerably more than the average will not be required to pay the full $41,000, either. Thankfully, tuition increases should have little impact on Yale’s neediest families.
But $41,000 is still an incredible amount of money for nearly any family, and if recent history is any guide, that number will keep growing. For the past 10 years, the term bill has grown by over 4 percent annually, a figure well above inflation. Yale isn’t alone in its rising tuition — in fact, the University’s tuition is toward the bottom of the Ivy League — but we’d still rather opt out of this particular trend.
After all, when tuition increases, the impact goes beyond forcing the families of current students to dig deeper into their pockets to pay for Yale. For one, a $40,000-plus term bill places Yale at a disadvantage in attracting top students who, in many cases, may have offers to pay little or nothing to go to top public universities. Rightly or wrongly, tuition this high strengthens the perception of Yale as an overpriced bastion for the few for whom $41,000 is just another expense — and might encourage even more prospective Yalies to ask whether an Ivy League education is really worth it.
Of course, complaining about tuition hikes invites an obvious question: Where else should the money come from? Yale officials say the tuition increase next year is partly due to financial aid improvements and efforts to reduce a budget deficit, and it is hard for anyone to argue against those initiatives. Students want many things — lower tuition, nicer residential colleges, smaller classes — and everything costs money. Something, the University officials say, has to give.
That’s true, but it also ignores Yale’s ability to set its own priorities. Every new cost must come from somewhere, but the idea that more generous financial aid necessarily requires higher tuition seems far-fetched; after all, the price tag of the new aid programs is about $3 million a year, less than two-tenths of a percent of Yale’s $1.8 billion operating budget. If Yale must make choices, perhaps it should invest slightly less in its ambitious construction projects. Or maybe, with returns consistently hovering near 20 percent, the University can afford to further raise the amount of money it is allowed to spend out of the endowment. Yes, these are trade-offs — better financial aid versus nicer renovations, or lower tuition versus a little less investment in the future. But they also offer options beyond requiring students to keep footing more of the bill. With tuition continuing to rise, those are choices worth considering.