A price worth paying?

Studies have shown that a strong, positive correlation exists between the amount or quality of education and future income, and this relationship has been used to help justify the cost of tuition for institutions of higher education. President Schapiro recently announced that tuition for the 2008-2009 school year will increase by 5.3 percent, bringing Williams’ total cost to a staggering $47,530. This development calls for a re-evaluation of the true worth of a Williams education. If attending the College and earning a diploma wasn’t a good, practical investment, then students and their families would not make the sacrifices needed to afford it. However, the recent increases in tuition are unjustifiable given the fact that both the College’s financial circumstances and the cost of attending it have reached outrageous levels.

While it is true that the full cost of educating a student at Williams exceeds the price of tuition, the shortfall is small change compared to the school’s large endowment. In a letter written by the College to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, a description of the school’s finances lists the endowment at $1.89 billion. To put this in perspective, according to the CIA’s World Factbook, this amount exceeds the GDP of one fifth of the world’s countries. Though a vast majority of the endowment ($1.77 billion) is restricted so that only its investment earnings can be spent by the school, the average annual return on the endowment has been 16.75 percent over the last four years and 15.31 percent over the last decade. Each year the school aims to spend 6 percent of the endowment on operating costs. Needless to say, Williams possesses staggering financial resources. So ultimately, the school sits upon an ever-increasing amount of money while it progressively charges more and more to attend.

These trends would be a bit more palatable if the school spent its money in ways that genuinely enhanced the Williams experience. Instead, the money has been used on valuable projects which were, in many regards, poorly planned: $128 million on the Sawyer-Stetson project, which will hold fewer books than the previous library, or $45 million on a student union that didn’t adequately anticipate how many students would go there and the lines that would ensue. Other expenditures seem even more baffling – do we really need so many flat-screen TVs throughout Paresky broadcasting the current weather? The school has a lot of money and uses a vast amount of it wisely, but a lot of money simply is not used judiciously. Williams ought to be obsessed with ensuring that money paid by the students and donated by generous alumni is used to truly enhance the collegiate experience. If the money isn’t being used to further the school’s objectives, then the school shouldn’t charge its students such a steep fee or solicit its alumni so vigorously. Fiscal prudence was a value my parents have always stressed, and I think the College should take a closer look to see if it adheres to this value.

The College certainly does help to reduce this amount through one of the most generous financial aid packages in the country: 47 percent of the student body receives some amount of aid; beginning next year, the school will offer grants instead of loans to students, and the program was also recently expanded to account for home equity. The latter alteration will increase the aid provided to an estimated 320 students. Clearly, the school has made a concerted and effective effort to attract and admit students from diverse socio-economic-ethnic backgrounds to the benefit of everyone in the community. All this being said, however, paying for tuition at Williams, regardless of a student’s economic status, is a tremendous burden. Students receiving aid pay an average of $13,787 per year, while the other 53 percent of the student body pays over $45,000. This amount is only likely to increase, seeing as tuition has increased every year over the last decade except for two.

Williams is one of the best colleges in the country and cherishes its membership in this very exclusive club. However, I think the College feels compelled to conceive of extravagant projects and proclaim new multi-million dollar buildings in an attempt to distinguish itself from its peers. If the College can afford such expensive projects, it can afford to make tuition cheaper. The most recent increase in tuition makes the already cumbersome burden of paying for college even greater and is hard to justify. There is no reason tuition should increase – let alone by 5.3 percent – while the school sits on $2 billion of wealth. If Williams wants to stand out, instead of making the College slightly cheaper than our fellow, absurdly expensive “peer institutions,” how about making Williams affordable in absolute terms? College tuition simply cannot continue to increase at this rate, nor should it. Do the differences in educational quality between a middle-of-the-pack institution and Williams merit the substantial differences in cost? With each increase in tuition, the answer becomes a more resounding no.

Michael Moorstein ’10 is from Darnestown, Md., and lives in Fayerweather.