As COVID-19 fundamentally alters the Yale experience, students have questioned Yale’s decision to leave tuition at its current level. And rightfully so. Yet this conversation ignores the fact that Yale’s tuition was outrageous even before the pandemic.
Tuition for the 2020-21 academic year at Yale College is $57,700. Since 2010, this figure has grown approximately 51 percent, equal to a compound annual growth rate of about 4.2 percent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ yearly inflation figure for the same period is approximately 1.7 percent. What changes has Yale made over the past 10 years to justify this difference?
David Swensen, Yale’s Chief Investment Officer, is acutely aware of college cost trends. In his book “Pioneering Portfolio Management,” he writes: “[T]eaching cannot be made more efficient without impairing the [educational] process.” In other words, the capital inputs of a Yale education — primarily faculty and administrative labor — continue to rise with little offset from productivity gains. Swensen claims that trading Yale’s educational standards for efficiency, ostensibly reducing tuition, would undermine its educational mission.
I am generally sympathetic to this account of inflation. Many of Yale’s best features are inefficient. Collegiate gothic buildings with intricate masonry require constant repairs. Seminar-style learning across disciplines demands a large faculty. Each residential dining hall has its own staff and kitchen.
The Higher Education Price Index is an inflation metric for university costs. Its annual growth rate over the past ten years is 2.2 percent, higher than the standard BLS figure. Given Yale’s particularly “inefficient” educational setup, I will round this figure to 3 percent. In his book, Swensen estimates that Yale’s annual increase in costs outstrips the core BLS figure by 1.4 percent, bringing us to about the same result. No matter how you slice it, about 1 percent of unaccounted tuition growth remains.
Commentators often attribute this additional tuition growth to so-called “administrative bloat,” arguing that universities can cut costs by reducing headcount in dean’s offices. But this is an insufficient explanation. Today’s marginal percent of tuition growth equates to millions in annual revenue, all of which could not be spent on deans.
Perhaps Yale’s residual value is the intangible asset of its diploma, a brand name recognized around the world. Families obviously believe the Yale name yields future dividends for their children; otherwise, they would not shell out so many dollars for tutors and college counselors — or donate so generously.
Whether Yale’s increasing cost is justified turns on the growth of this intangible value. For the wealthy, a Yale diploma — clout pre-installed — is priceless. For everyone else, the future income guaranteed by a degree is highly important. But there is a point where families and donors must ask: Are hundreds of thousands of dollars in college tuition worth it?
Enter COVID-19, which threatens every component of a college education. Let’s work our way backward through the tuition value structure. The virus is ravaging the post-graduate job market. Many of my friends in the Class of 2020 are struggling to find work. They just graduated from Yale University, a school whose credentials are supposed to open doors.
College this fall will not be the same. Zoom seminars cannot replicate the cadence and trust of a classroom environment. Socially distanced gatherings, where permissible, will foster only a semblance of community. What does this mean for Yale’s bottom line?
This fall, Yale will likely achieve record cost reduction as it reduces on-campus activity. Although some expenses will increase — virus control and financial aid being the most obvious — it is hard to believe they will outpace the salary freezes and core educational deflation already underway. Fewer tuition dollars will flow to services and investments for students — especially those not on campus.
Tuition for the 2020–21 academic year at Yale College is $57,700. It shouldn’t be. We deserve better from higher education. As some of us return to an almost unrecognizable campus, with others attending from home, Yale should ensure its term billing reflects our new reality.
AIDAN O’CONNOR is a senior in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .