Senior Nathan Foster, one of TCU's three trustee representatives, poses for a portrait in the Mayer Campus Center on Apr. 6, 2018. Ray Bernoff / The Tufts Daily

Affordability and the Budget, Part 4: The future of affordability at Tufts

This is part four in a four-part series from the Daily’s Investigative Team.

As explored in part three of this reporting series, Tufts’ need-aware policy, necessitated by budget limitations and ambitious expenditures, has likely decreased the accessibility of the university for low-income students. However, Nick Ducoff, the founder of Edmit — a company that helps students evaluate college as an investment — said that this is not the norm for universities across the country. According to Ducoff, Edmit helps families evaluate their college investment by predicting how much financial aid a student will receive, based on their GPA and SAT/ACT scores.

“Edmit is a platform to help students and their families evaluate college like an investment. College is one of the largest purchases that a person will make in their lifetime. It’s up there between a car and a house, and yet people put considerably less average research into it than they do those other purchases,” Ducoff said.

He argued that while tuition has risen, many schools aren’t actually becoming more expensive as they offer more financial aid to students they wish to see attend their university. Ducoff describes this as a “discount” —  for most universities, these large discounts offset the high prices.

“There’s no question that the sticker price of college has gone up in virtually every category. The thing that I think has been a little surprising to find is that the net price in terms of actual cost has actually been flat  … so many private colleges have to do much, much more to compete and win the enrollment of the student, and as a result have been discounting more than they have in the past,” Ducoff said.

Sol Gittleman, former Tufts provost and chair of the then-combined Russian and German department, explained that this assessment is accurate in regard to Tufts’ ability to discount tuition prices for prospective students. He said that in the 1940s and 1950s, Tufts’ financial aid budget was even more limited than it is today, and the university was unable to offer students the financial aid they truly needed. While tuition has risen exponentially since then, Gittleman said that Tufts’ ability to offer financial aid has as well.

“Certainly, even back then, more kids had access if they wanted to come. [Today] I think they have more access. Tufts in the ’40s and ’50s couldn’t compete for the kids they wanted. Now, they can compete,” he said.

However, Ducoff said that while the trend indicates that most universities have stayed just as affordable with the rise of tuition, a small number of universities are not following this trend. These universities have become increasingly more expensive with the rise of tuition because they attract student populations that will pay high tuition without needing any financial aid. Ducoff believes that Tufts may be one of them.

“There are a small number of universities that have been impervious to that phenomenon, and Tufts is, I think, one of them. They can kind of keep increasing tuition and finding new cuts for that to fit the mix of who is paying that tuition at Tufts,” he said.

Ducoff’s analysis is consistent with the disproportionately high numbers of students from high income brackets who attend Tufts. However, his assessment would predict that class disparity would increase as tuition rises, indicating that fewer students are receiving financial aid and more students are paying the full sticker price.

Since 2011, Tufts has inched closer to socioeconomic equality. According to recently published data from the Office of Institutional Research and Evaluation, while there’s still an extremely small number of students at Tufts from the bottom 60 percent, this number has increased since 2011. In 2011, 79.9 percent of students were in the top 20 percent of income earners or did not apply for financial aid, compared to 10.9 percent in the bottom 60 percent. In 2017,  on the other hand, 74.6 percent of students are from the top 20 percent or did not apply for financial aid, compared to 18.3 percent from the bottom 60 percent.

Flaws in Tufts’ affordability metrics  

The fact that the disparity between the population size of high-income and low-income students at Tufts is slowly closing, which seems positive. However, Trustee Representative Nathan Foster maintains that this disparity will largely persist because the metrics Tufts uses for evaluating the effectiveness of its financial aid system are flawed. Foster presented this point in a research presentation to Tufts Community Union Senate, which has sparked a resolution from Foster and three first-year senate members urging the university to maintain its current levels of affordability.

While the university claims that financial aid offsets its tuition costs, Foster’s research shows that this may not be the case. According to Foster, administrators often focus on comparing percentages of increase for tuition and financial aid, which are typically on par, with the percentage increase for financial aid generally being higher.

“While [the Board of Trustees] acknowledge [the affordability problem at Tufts] they underestimate it to an extreme degree, and that’s largely based on the metrics they use to measure how affordable they are,” Foster, a senior, said.

The rate Foster is referencing is not the overall rate of increase for tuition revenues and financial aid money; rather, it has to do with the amount of dollars Tufts collects from students in tuition revenue versus the amount of dollars Tufts gives out in financial aid.

According to Foster’s calculations, the total amount of money collected from students increased 2.62 times faster than the amount of money given out in financial aid.  

Foster said that the specific number of dollars the university receives from tuition increases compared to the specific number of dollars that the university allocates is the more important comparison. Because the university is receiving many more dollars from tuition than it is allocating for financial aid, tuition is still increasing faster than financial aid can offset it.

“I think it’s important to note that financial aid throughout the past few years has increased at the same rate as tuition increases, but that’s misleading because the total pool of financial aid is only about a quarter of the total amount that Tufts receives in tuition money,” Foster said. “So, if financial aid increases at the same rate as tuition, that means that tuition is increasing three times faster than financial aid [in terms of the number of dollars added], four times faster than financial aid.” 

Data from the 2016–2017 University Factbook confirms Foster’s claims that in recent years, a smaller percentage of money from tuition revenues has been allocated to financial aid. The percentage of financial aid as a portion of revenue from tuition and fees has decreased: Since 2002, it has hovered around 42–43 percent. However, in 2012, it declined to 39 percent, and since then it has hovered around 39–40 percent.

Even though a smaller portion of tuition revenues is being allocated to financial aid, the average percentage of tuition covered by this aid per person has stayed steady since 2002 at around 62–64 percent. According to this data, to account for a smaller portion of tuition revenue going to financial aid, it seems there may be less students aided despite a growing class size. According to the Factbook, since 2002, 50 percent of the student body received some sort of outside financial assistance, including university grant money and any sort of outside scholarship. However, between 2011–2016, the percentage of students receiving any sort of aid declined from 50 percent to 46 percent.

Gittleman also acknowledged that Tufts has been able to find prospective students who will pay high tuition prices. He argued that it’s basic supply and demand: Because a Tufts education is in such high demand, there will always be students and families who will pay high prices to obtain it.

“It’s supply and demand — if they didn’t want to come, they wouldn’t be here. [Universities] all pride themselves on the number of kids they turn down … What are they doing? They are driving up the number of applicants so they can turn them down? At the end of the day, this is a success story,” Gittleman said.

The Brighter World Campaign: What will affordability at Tufts look like in the future?

While the state of financial aid at Tufts is still worse than most of its peer institutions, there have been several successful initiatives to increase the university’s capacity to give aid. According to Eric C. Johnson, the senior vice president for university advancement, one such initiative is President Monaco’s Financial Aid Initiative, where the university promised to match gifts of over $100,000 to create new endowed scholarships, which saw widespread success.

“The Financial Aid Initiative, which officially concluded on June 30, 2016, was a hit. Hundreds of alumni, parents and friends participated, surpassing the $90 million goal by $5 million — adding to 277 existing scholarships and fellowships while also creating 198 new ones,” Johnson said.

Another is the Brighter World capital campaign — Tufts’ current $1.5 billion to increase its endowment. According to Johnson, the campaign has already raised a significant amount of money for financial aid.

“To date, Brighter World — a university-wide campaign — has raised $175 million for financial aid across all of the university’s schools. Our goal is to raise as much as possible for this critical need,” he said.

Some, like Foster, are skeptical that Brighter World is truly as dedicated to raising money for financial aid as it claims to be.

“I think that provided that that money really is devoted to making Tufts more affordable, I think it would be good, but I’m not completely convinced that that’s the biggest priority for them with this money. But also I don’t know, and I’d like to be proven otherwise,” Foster said.

And while the Brighter World Campaign is raising money for financial aid, Johnson said it does not aim to make the university need-blind. According to most of the sources interviewed for this article, a need-blind admissions policy would significantly improve socioeconomic diversity at Tufts by making it much easier for low-income students to attend and be admitted to the university.

According to University Vice President Patricia Campbell and Vice President for Finance and Treasurer Tom McGurty, financial aid is one of the main aspects of the Brighter World campaign, but that the campaign won’t make Tufts need-blind because that would necessitate a much larger infusion of financial aid than Brighter World is predicted to bring in.

However, all of Tufts’ stated peer institutions are need-blind, except for Washington University in St. Louis — which, according to Foster’s data, has the second highest average total cost. To become on par with its peer institutions’ affordability, Tufts needs to implement a need-blind admissions policy.

It remains to be seen what the impact of Brighter World will be. According to the campaign’s goals, which are listed on its website, Brighter World will also be aimed toward expansion and improvement of many qualities associated with the university’s prestige, like research and faculty.

“In addition to raising money to support students and access, Brighter World is also focused on raising funds to support our faculty, and to help faculty and students make an impact on the world through research, scholarship and civic engagement,” Johnson said.

However, it’s also true that so far, the Brighter World Campaign has surpassed 2017’s entire budget for financial aid. According to the 2016–2017 Tufts University Audited Financial Statement, the financial aid budget for the entire university was $140 million, meaning this amount has been more than matched by contributions to Brighter World.

Even though the Brighter World Campaign may be increasing the financial aid budget, junior Tufts Student Action member Amira Al-Subaey still argued that if Tufts students want to see any real change, then the model of higher education in the United States needs to be completely revolutionized.

“I think the fundamentals about how higher education works and how Tufts works needs to change if we actually want to see socioeconomic diversity at Tufts, if we actually want to see low income people having equal access to the same things that the one percent have,” Al-Subaey said.

While Foster agreed that the system is flawed, he said he believes Tufts could be a leader and prioritize affordability over what he sees as an unsustainable, unaffordable competition for prestige.

“I think being affordable and providing a high-quality education, which we will do regardless of how prestigious we are, and actually providing that education to a lot of people is more important than competing in this kind of rat race,” he said.

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