Despite tuition freeze, openness needed

With Williams President Carl Vogt’s announcement that the College will freeze its comprehensive fee – tuition, room and board – for the 2000 academic year comes a considerable amount of speculation from analysts and critics. This decision, we’re told, could be the blip on the radar that will, as Larry Gladieux of the College Board told USA Today, “rein in the tuition spiral that has persisted [at national universities] since 1980.”

This is, of course, a noble and tremendously important goal. One would be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe that higher education is a ridiculously expensive proposition. The College’s decision to freeze the fee accomplishes one thing that universities such as Princeton, in toying with their financial aid policies, have not: it calls into question the annual tuition hikes taken for granted in the world of higher education. If, as it should, it gives other colleges pause and forces them to think more critically about their own comprehensive fees, then it is on one level an effective measure.

But while Williams’ role in spearheading national reevaluation of the fee is what has attracted significant attention outside of the Berkshires, an essential local question has been all but ignored: What exactly does the freeze mean to Williams itself? Every bit as important as the national implications of the freeze are the effects it has on the College’s own financial and academic missions.

Explaining the decision, Vogt cited the College’s $1 billion endowment and strong alumni network and said, “This just seems a logical move for us.” That’s not enough for Williams students, the intended beneficiaries of the tuition hold. Why not? Because the College has not detailed exactly why it chose this course of action to alleviate the cost of education.

To cite a comparative example, Princeton recently announced a plan to provide grants instead of loans to students from families of below-average income. The program is geared toward meeting the needs of those students for whom college is a particularly restrictive expense. The Williams comprehensive fee freeze, by contrast, does not have such a specific and effective focus; in applying, universally, it compromises its own power to help those greatest in need of help.

Simply put, the decision is not one of obvious logic. It should be scrutinized against other available options for its efficacy in meeting the College’s goals for its finances, which presumably include affordability and responsiveness to individual financial needs.

And while the moneys for bolstering financial aid and flattening the comprehensive fee would not be drawn from the same place in the College’s rather complex financial structure, both allude to the most pressing financial question facing Williams: How to treat the endowment, a composite fund totaling about $1 billion? As the endowment grows considerably, expenditure grows only incrementally; Vogt told the Record earlier this year, “I don’t see any big breakthrough in when we are going to start spending [endowment] money.”

Williams students have never been given any worthwhile insight into the role that the administration sees the endowment playing: at what point does spending become acceptable or necessary? Even given the tuition freeze – which, it should again be stressed, is clearly an admirable move – is it possibly time to use the endowment to increase financial aid? The student body should be given the tools to form reasoned opinions on what amounts to one of the most important questions the College faces. This requires only the barest of tools: cliché as it may sound, the College needs to publicly examine the impact of its financial decisions with insight and candor. It’s great that Williams wants to take a leading role in reining in the “tuition spiral;” now the College must additionally apply a more hermetic focus to its fiscal policies.