The bust of Jean Mayer, former president of Tufts University, is pictured on Monday, April 23, 2018. Asha Iyer / The Tufts Daily

Affordability and the Budget, Part 1: Expansion, investment and the making of an elite institution

Tufts may not have the university name recognition of its world-renowned neighbors in Cambridge, but it is widely considered an elite institution, well-known for providing a high quality undergraduate education and for conducting world-class research amongst its students and faculty. In 2018, Tufts was ranked the 29th best university in the country according to U.S. News & World Report, and the university currently has a 14.8 percent acceptance rate, making it one of the most selective colleges in the country.

But before 1996, Tufts had never even ranked in the top 50 on the U.S. News annual ranking chart. According to Sol Gittleman, former Tufts Provost from 1981–2002 and former Chair of the then-combined Department of German and Russian, the Tufts of today was an entirely different place when he began teaching here in 1964. At that time, the university was struggling financially, fighting to keep its professors and mend its crumbling buildings all while attempting to entice students to attend the university.

“We were taking over half our applicants, but look at where we are now: There are probably 20, 30 schools in the country that take as few of our applicants as we do. And there are probably 200 in the country that take less than half,” Gittleman said.

Gittleman said that if Tufts had not found a way to make money and embark on this path to prestige, the university may have closed. He argued that raising money changed Tufts and allowed it to become competitive with its peer institutions, ensuring the university’s survival.

“Tufts was not a viable institution, we might not have made it. But then we got a new president, and all of the sudden, it all started … He started raising money, and once he found out how to do it it never stopped, and it never will. That’s what universities are all about,” Gittleman said.

However, the university’s growing prestige comes at a high cost: Tuition and fees were announced in a March 29 email to the university community for 2018–2019, amounting to a record high of $70,941. According to Business Insider, Tufts is the 21st most expensive college in the United States. This high sticker price has sparked student concern that as tuition rises, the university is not prioritizing making the school accessible to low income students.

As the cost of attendance has increased over the years, student frustrations have manifested in action. #HaltTheHike is a campaign lead by Tufts Student Action (TSA), a student group calling for the university to stop increasing tuition at what TSA sees as an unsustainable rate. TSA member Amira al-Subaey spoke to the Daily about her concerns that increasing tuition hikes will continue to ostracize the already small number of low-income students on campus.

“I think that a lot of students can attest to … feeling like the only person in the room that can’t go out to dinner on the weekend or is literally worried about if they’re going to school next semester because of their financial aid package” Al-Subaey, a junior, said. “I am extremely concerned about how that will continue as Tufts tuition increases.”

TSA and other campus activist groups are calling for greater transparency on the part of the Board of Trustees, the governing body responsible for approving Tufts tuition price every year.

“We need more transparency in the administration when it comes to tuition hikes, we need justification for tuition hikes,” al-Subaey said. “We need to address the extremely low levels of socioeconomic diversity on this campus.”

When asked about the the university’s accessibility, Board of Trustees Chairman Peter Dolan said that the Board is committed to making Tufts as affordable as possible.

“We remain committed to keeping costs to students as low as possible and to minimizing any necessary increases in the future, while providing an excellent educational experience for all students,” Dolan wrote in an email to the Daily.

There is no simple explanation for the rapidly increasing cost of attendance, but one factor is that the cost of higher education in general in the United States is rising at a rate much higher than the national rate of inflation. Tufts’ tuition increases, then, are reflective of the phenomenon of exorbitant tuition prices afflicting universities across the nation.

“[The cost of] everything’s gone up, the stock market’s off the wall, and they are looking at these universities as if they were corporations on the stock market. Which of the colleges produces the biggest bang for their buck — that’s America,” Gittleman said.

However, according to various sources, Tufts is even less affordable than its peer institutions, in part because of its ambitious and maintained rate of expansion. According to Trustee Representative Nathan Foster, Tufts’ quest to compete with elite schools has caused affordability goals to become secondary.

“I think there’s a big push from Tufts to be prestigious and to compete with schools like Harvard, Yale or MIT or what have you, and so I think there’s a big push from Tufts to be prestigious. Often times goals like affordability can get thrown by the wayside in pursuit of that,” Foster, a senior, said.

Tufts’ ambitious growth: A decades-long project with entrepreneurial designs

Tufts tuition increases are rooted in the history of the university’s transformation from a largely commuter college in the 1950s to what it’s known as today: an elite undergraduate research university, with a hint of its liberal arts college charm intact.

According to Gittleman, who published a book on Tufts’ history titled An Entrepreneurial University: The Transformation of Tufts, 1976–2002,” when he first started teaching at Tufts, it was unrecognizable.

“We were not doing great in the 60s … As a result, buildings were burning down because we didn’t have enough money — we deferred maintenance. Jumbo burned down in ‘75, other buildings burned down, the electrical system’s upkeep wasn’t possible and we had no financial aid, nothing. This was not a good time,” Gittleman said.

However, according to Gittleman, Jean Mayer’s presidency from 1976 to 1993 changed everything. He understood that in order to compete with other Boston universities, Tufts had to raise money quickly.

“The president himself was an entrepreneurial type. He set the standard … There’s never been anybody quite like him, but the thing that he did was that he told everybody that comes after him, you gotta do this, you’ve got to raise money,” Gittleman said. “In that sense, they’ve all become part of his legacy.”

According to Assistant Professor of Sociology Freeden Blume Oeur, who taught a class called “The Sociology of Higher Education” in fall 2017, this focus on fundraising set Tufts on the path to become a prestigious university at a time when prestige and a university’s market value began to become more and more intertwined.

“Tufts hadn’t always been a university and certainly not one with aspirations to be a top research institution. This has a really recent history dating back to the presidency of Jean Mayer, sort of in the 70s,” Blume Oeur said. “This just in the years leading up to the U.S. News and World Report releasing its first ranking, Tufts sort of joined this aggressive push to be an elite university just as things were becoming standardized.”

On the one hand, this financial expansion enabled the university to improve its resources, resulting in better professors, buildings and research, as well as more comprehensive financial aid. According to the 1980–1981 Tufts University Factbook, in 1950, financial aid on average reduced the cost of tuition by $63: from $1,450 to $1,393. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average financial aid award for the 2015–2016 school year was $36,578 in grant or scholarship aid, reducing cost from $65,900 to $29,322.

“[The benefits of financial expansion are] financial aid, it’s more research space, more classroom space, technology, computational power, faculty,” Gittleman said.

However, there’s a negative side to this drive for financial stability and prestige. Rather than focusing solely on providing quality education, Tufts then had to figure out how they were going to acquire funding to maintain this rate of growth, and thus, their increasingly elite status and higher value of attendance.

Gittleman said the primary way Tufts and other universities accomplished this was by adopting the Yale Model of investment, an endowment growth strategy adopted by many universities in the 1980s after Yale University used it to quickly increase its own endowment.

The Yale Model is an endowment investment strategy popularized by David Swensen, who has served as Yale’s chief investment officer since 1985. According to the International Banker, the strategy involves taking the university’s endowment and investing it in a combination of hedge funds, private equity and other non-traditional assets. The Yale Model was responsible for making universities run more like private corporations: To execute this strategy, universities hire professionals to manage their investment portfolios.

According to Blume Oeur, the Yale Model changed the face of higher education by introducing a conflict for universities that chose to adopt it. While universities were meant to provide education to as many students as possible, they now had to follow capitalistic principles and compete with each other in order to stay afloat.

“These are private, non-profit universities, you have a lot of people working behind the scenes. You have people who won’t necessarily ever interface with the student body running things,” Blume Oeur said. “One of the most important things you’ll learn in [Blume Oeur’s Sociology of Higher Education] course is that higher education has been characterized by this often pretty volatile tension between its democratic goals and its market impulses.”

Is Tufts’ high tuition merely a symptom of the American higher education system?

According to Gittleman, this tension between democratic goals and market impulses is plaguing universities across the country. It’s what drives tuition prices up: Since tuition is Tufts’ main source of revenue, the increased costs that came with ambitious expansion meant that tuition must also increase. Thus, he says, Tufts’ high tuition hikes are a natural product of the competition created by the higher education market in the United States. But Gittleman said he doesn’t have much of a problem with this system.

“We have non-profits who take care of people and they compete for dollars in this country. Competition is in the American DNA, prestige has gotten into the American DNA. Show me a school that’s doing better than we are,” Gittleman said. “If they don’t want to be in a capitalist environment, go somewhere else.”

In the 2010–2011 Tufts Factbook, Tufts tuition cost is compared to 11 other elite, medium sized universities. Amongst these 11 are Boston College, Brown, Northwestern, Dartmouth and Georgetown.

When asked, Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell and Vice President for Finance and Treasurer Tom McGurty responded that they believed Tufts tuition and affordability is on par with its peer institutions.

“Each of Tufts’ schools reviews a comparable group of schools to look at a variety of metrics, including cost. Our review shows that while not exact, this group of comparable schools has similar costs, with some being somewhat higher and some being somewhat lower,” McGurty and Campbell wrote in a joint email to the Daily.

Assuming that these peer institutions are the same as the comparable group of schools found in the Factbook, this is not entirely true. According to the chart “Undergraduate Charges Relative to Comparison Group,” since 2001, Tufts has consistently ranked in the top three out of its stated peer institutions in terms of tuition cost.

According to Foster, Tufts may be even less affordable when compared to its peer institutions than the Factbook data make it seem. He explained that Tufts’ metrics for evaluating comparative affordability are flawed. The metric for comparison should not solely be the tuition price tag — it should be the average total cost of attendance. This metric calculates the average price each student pays by subtracting the average financial aid package from tuition cost.

The concept of an average total cost metric was originally used in old Tufts Factbooks, according to Foster. Evidence of such use can be found in the 1980–1981 Tufts Factbook, which chronicles the average cost of attendance since 1951. The statistic stopped being used in the 1980s, just as Tufts was making its push to achieve elite status.

When Tufts’ average total cost is compared to this group of peer institutions, Tufts is the least affordable. Tufts average total cost is $52,283, while the next most expensive is the University of Pennsylvania, at $50,233. The private peer institution with the lowest average total cost is Columbia, at $44,645.

According to Gittleman, Georgetown and Dartmouth should be considered Tufts’ main peer institutions, as all three are medium-sized undergraduate teaching colleges where research is also conducted.

“Tufts is unique … it’s also a teaching university where everybody does research. So we’ve got to find the right balance. And each president will make his own thing. But the DNA of the institution is exactly the same. We’re like three peas in a pod: Dartmouth, Georgetown and Tufts,” he said.

According to calculations made by Foster based on data from the NCES, in the 2015–2016 school year, Tufts’ average total cost amounted to $52,283, while Georgetown’s was $50,025 and Dartmouth’s was $45,486. This means that even amongst its principle peer institutions, Tufts is significantly more expensive — $2,258 more than Georgetown and $6,797 more than Dartmouth.

While the $2,258 dollar difference between the average total cost of Georgetown and Tufts may seem small, for many students, a few thousand dollars is nothing to be trivialized. Alumna and former Trustee Representative Sylvia Ofoma (LA ’17) described how a $4,000 dollar tuition increase is a big deal to a student making minimum wage.

“$4,000, that doesn’t seem like much but I had a part time job in Kansas where I made $7.50 an hour, that’s me working two summers and making that,” Ofoma told the Daily.

Differences of two, three or four thousand dollars are also very meaningful for families from the bottom 20 percent. The Office of Institutional Research and Evaluation (OIRE) recently published data on the average price paid by students from each income quintile. According to the data, students from the bottom 20 percent face huge fluctuation in tuition cost: students who entered in 2011 paid an average of $13,075, while students who entered in 2014 paid an average of $1,282, and students who entered in 2017 paid an average of $7,067.

Al-Subaey explained that this kind of unpredictability can place undue burden on low-income students. When your expected contribution shifts each year, your financial future is always up in the air.

“If you’re on financial aid, your package shifts every year, and it could increase your loans, it could increase your family contribution. For students to be expected to pay $10,000 more by the time it comes to their senior year is really outrageous,” Al-Subaey said.

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