There actually is an argument to be made in favor of the never-ending tuition increases that we see at the College: price discrimination. Basically, raising tuition really high allows you to use the high tuition of the really rich to fund the educations of more low-income students. This, of course, depends on the College actually having financial aid that meets students’ full demonstrated need, but the logic is already implicitly there. When the College says “30/60/90,” referring to the average tuition cost, sticker price tuition and claimed actual cost of educating a student, they are admitting that the sticker price is almost meaningless. In practice, it amounts to a ceiling price, and a tuition increase is actually just an increase in the maximum someone might pay.
Were the College to meet students’ financial aid needs to the degree that it claim to, this increase in tuition from $61,000 to $63,000 would only increase prices for those who can afford to pay more tuition. Steve, who currently gets $61,000 in financial aid, thus paying $0 tuition, would get an extra two grand and continue to pay zero. Joan, who gets $30,000, would get $32,000. And Mickey, whom the College judges to be able to pay full tuition, but only barely, gets financial aid for the first time. His tuition stays at $61,000, as he gets a $2,000 grant. Finally, Scrooge McDuck’s four children who currently pay full tuition continue to pay full tuition.
The logical conclusion here is that Scrooge could actually keep paying full tuition even if tuition increased to one million dollars per year. As a trillionaire, four million is pocket change to him. It’s no problem, and surely no one would consider it unthinkable, to expect him to pay a little extra, even if he found it a bit unfair. (Okay, some may view expecting the rich to pay for the College tuition of the poor as unacceptable. I like redistribution and do not.) So maybe tuition should be a million dollars or even a billion. Only Bill Gates and Scrooge McDuck could afford full tuition if it were a billion dollars, but Scrooge’s slacker younger brother could get $999,000,000 of financial aid and still pay $1,000,000, in practice paying for the education of lower-income students. In theory, raising tuition frequently gets us more and more money without actually imposing upon anyone costs they can’t afford. Needs are met by financial aid. Everyone should have access to high quality education, but obviously it needs to be paid for. Higher fees for those who can afford them is as good a source as any.
It might be asked, why list a sticker price at all? Why doesn’t the College simply assess people’s finances and assign them a personal tuition price, rather than going backwards and assigning a personal financial aid package? I think the answer to this is practical: If every college did this, any given college would have a huge incentive to impose a (high) ceiling and get every rich person to send their children there. The current system, where it is incremental, allows institutions to test their peers at each step, so none has as much of an incentive to make a unilateral cut. This is also why they do not immediately increase tuition to the maximum that Mr. McDuck can pay.
It should be really clearly stated that this argument for increasing tuition prices rests entirely upon financial aid at the College actually meeting the full demonstrated need of each student. Accordingly, each student’s financial aid package should be honestly reevaluated every time tuition is changed. It’s hard to say something unequivocal on this, but it is pretty clear that many students and parents feel their package does not fully meet their needs. This must be corrected for the College’s practices to be defensible, and I would also argue that we should be loan-free. But the fundamental fact is that if financial aid is reevaluated as it should be, increases in tuition should not change tuition payments for anyone who cannot afford them.
It is also necessary that the admissions process be need-blind for international students. It is already unacceptable, in my view, that it is not. The only justification for it is a belief that non-Americans are in some way worth less as people or worth less to the College than Americans. Even the assertion that non-Americans are more likely to leave America is fundamentally the same argument: Somehow it is worse to have a Williams-educated person outside of America than to have that person in America. Increasing tuition only magnifies the problem of the College selecting for rich foreigners, if we remain need-aware in international admissions.
Assuming financial aid actually meets the full demonstrated need of all students, and that we are need-blind for everyone, the final worry is that too high of tuition would crowd out donations. I think this concern is assuaged by the fact that the target audiences of tuition and donations are different: In the first case, it is parents who are paying, and in the second, it is alumni. There is some overlap but I think it is small enough that this policy would still be a net positive financially.
I want to underscore that I do not think that all the preconditions required for this policy being understood as a good one are currently the case. Nonetheless, it is true that tuition increases are not inherently immoral, and in fact, the case for them, when examined in terms of social justice, is very strong.
Christopher Huffaker ’15 is a math and French double major from Calgary, Alberta. He lives in West.