Tufts is second most expensive Mass. school

By a slim $50 margin separating it from first place, Tufts this year ranks as the second most expensive school in Massachusetts, according to a report released last month by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Nationally, the university comes in as the 30th most expensive institution in the nation, according to the report, marking a drop from last year’s No. 20 ranking in spite of a price tag that continues to rise.

Tuition, fees and room and board are $52,866 this year, a 3.5 percent hike from the 2009−2010 academic year. Total costs rose by the same rate last year as well.

Leah McIntosh, executive administrative dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, said that as the individual components of tuition and fees go up, administrators are forced to raise total costs. These factors include financial aid, technology, maintenance of university facilities and employee salaries.

“We know students and their families are concerned about the cost of an education,” she said in an e−mail. “We work hard to control expenses without sacrificing the quality of the educational experience that our students expect.”

Senior administrators within the Schools of Engineering and Arts and Sciences, including the two deans of the school, the university provost and the president, determine the cost of tuition, which is later approved by the Board of Trustees, according to McIntosh.

Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., took the No. 1 spot for highest tuition nationally, while Babson College, at $52, 916, ranked as the most expensive school in Massachusetts, a designation Tufts held last year.

Tufts is joined this year by a considerable number of new members of the “$50K Club,” the group of schools with total costs over $50,000. The “club,” according to the Chronicle report, now boasts 100 members, a significant rise from the 58 colleges and universities that comprised it last year and 20 times the size of its five−school membership the year before.

Scott Carlson, a senior reporter at the Chronicle who authored last year’s report, said that there is no universal reason why institutions across the country raise their costs.

“Some have real needs in terms of programs to support what the endowment is not covering or other programs are not covering,” he told the Daily. “In other cases, it’s maintenance issues. In some cases, it’s a projection of what they might need down the road.”

Yet the swarm of new and old “$50K” members, he warned, may misrepresent the burden actually placed on students.

“The number you see, the sticker price, is different from what people actually pay,” he said. “It’s one measure of a college’s price, but it’s not the perfect measure.”

The average aid award for a Tufts student, including grants, loans and work study at the federal, state and university levels, was roughly $33,000 for this academic year, according to Patricia Reilly, the director of financial aid and co−manager of Student Financial Services. Roughly 50 percent of Tufts undergraduates receive some form of financial aid, McIntosh said.

Meeting the full demonstrated financial need of all undergraduates, McIntosh said, was a critical piece of the “Tufts mission.”

To address this need, the university has increased financial aid at more than twice the rate of the tuition increase, a reflection of the lagging economy as much as anything else, according to Reilly.

“It’s partly rising to take into account the increase of tuition, partly to account for the impact of the economy on our families,” she said.

Between the 2008−09 and 2009−10 academic years, the financial aid budget increased by 9 percent, according to McIntosh. This year, the budget has increased by an additional 10 percent.

Martha Savery, director of community outreach at the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority, a nonprofit, state−led organization that provides college savings plans to Massachusetts students, said that colleges across the nation worked harder to meet student need when the economy turned sour.

“In 2008, when things really started to get more turbulent in the economy, I think colleges did make a very concerted effort to broaden their offerings to families,” she told the Daily. “It’s a very individual process because there are colleges that have significant institutional dollars to be able to award to families, and there are colleges and universities that don’t have that.”

Even as the financial aid budget continues to rise, it remains uncertain whether Tufts’ tuition will ever hit a breaking point.

“I think that would be asking to predict economics in a way that I certainly don’t feel qualified to do,” McIntosh said.

Savery was similarly unsure if and when college tuitions would stop rising but said that meeting tuition costs today, no matter the figure, may prove challenging for some.

“I don’t know what that tipping point is, and I don’t know that there is one,” she said. “Being where we are today in the most difficult and most challenging economic times that we’ve ever had, the reality is that what might have been affordable for a family four years ago … may have a very different definition today.”