Last month, the University announced that the Yale College term bill will increase by 3.8 percent, in keeping with recent trends. Despite a decade of austerity, which has included layoffs, hiring freezes and across-the-board budget cuts, the University continues to operate under the presumption of fiscal restraint. Yet, college costs climb at more than twice the inflation rate: In today’s dollars, tuition alone has increased from $35,688 in 1998 to $53,430 in 2018. While the University deserves credit for its commitment to need-based financial aid, what can possibly explain this paradox?
Despite the University’s lack of budget transparency, we can infer two broad reasons for the cost explosion. First, Yale has seen an exponential rise in the number of middle managers and student life professionals. At the very top of the scale, compensation for senior administrators has also increased dramatically. In 1999, in the seventh year of his term, University President Richard Levin earned $525,687, or about $770,000 in today’s dollars. In 2015, in the third year of his term, President Salovey took home $1.4 million. This occurred even as faculty salaries at Yale declined over the last decade, relative to faculty salaries at peer institutions.
Second, Yale, like other colleges, has added a dazzling array of facilities. From pottery studios in college basements to touchscreens in the Center for Teaching and Learning, new amenities cost money to build, staff and maintain. Many of these amenities enrich the student experience and are at least in part funded by donor contributions. Still, the real question is not whether they are beneficial, but whether they are worth the cost.
Meanwhile, the “hidden” costs of college have also increased. In many industries, especially the culture and nonprofit sectors, unpaid summer internships have become a prerequisite for a full-time job. While the Domestic Summer Award represents a laudable attempt to mitigate this reality, I fear it will only normalize and entrench the practice. Unpaid placements not only hurt students from poorer backgrounds and institutions, but also drag down wages for entry-level jobs.
Cumulatively, these forces threaten the future of higher education. Psychologically, students are more likely to see their education as an investment and to adopt the mindset of an entitled consumer. Coupled with earlier and earlier recruitment cycles, they are more likely to accept lucrative jobs in finance and consulting, rather than embark on careers for the public good.
Once the bastion of social mobility, a liberal arts education feels increasingly inaccessible to the vast majority of Americans (“UP CLOSE: Tearing down the ivory tower,” April 12, 2018). As a result, public support for higher education has ebbed. Despite Yale’s generous financial aid and extensive outreach efforts, the reality is that it is no longer possible to deliver a liberal arts education at scale.
Make no mistake: I believe Yale College offers one of the best undergraduate educations in the world. Some of its features, like the libraries and museums, cannot be easily replicated. But the core of a liberal arts education should be an option for the many, not the few. Once upon a time, many state schools had thriving programs in the humanities and the arts. Budget cuts have rendered that an elusive past. Unless elite schools take the lead in managing the costs of college, they will find themselves increasingly isolated in the higher education landscape.
Given the inertia at a large institution like Yale, the best way to improve college access might be to explore alternative modes of delivery. We have already invested in Open Yale Courses, but we can do more. From programs for veterans and classes in prisons, to taking in more transfer students, Yale can provide funding and support for radically new ways of sharing the treasure that is a liberal arts education.
And, for all its idiosyncrasies, Yale-NUS College could point to ways of managing the cost of a liberal arts education. Without the Singapore government’s tuition grant, international students at Yale-NUS pay about $52,000 for tuition, room and board. That’s almost 20 grand less the sticker price of Yale, which should prompt us to consider what the startup is doing differently. By experimenting at the periphery, we can reinvent the core.
College access is not just an economic question, but an ethical imperative. University trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to the institution, but all of us also have a moral responsibility to the future. Until we take decisive action on the question of college affordability, we will continue to talk a big game of inclusion, while underwriting an unsustainable status quo.
Jun Yan Chua is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .