Parents Protest Unrelenting Tuition Hikes at Elite Colleges

When my daughter was accepted as one of the 1,700 students among 32,000 who applied to attend Duke University, my husband and I chose to swallow the $63,273 price tag for tuition, room and board in return for a world class education that we thought could give her a leg up in the competitive job market. But we were disappointed to learn that the already astronomically high tuition would continue to rise, unabated. Duke is one of several highly regarded but expensive colleges that has decided to raise tuition between three and five percent for the 2016-2017 school year, bringing the total cost of room, board and tuition to $65,703. Others include Brown University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University and Yale University. Since the total cost to attend Duke has risen $22,000 in 10 years, by the time our daughter graduates, it's likely that the tuition will exceed $70,000, well outpacing the rate of inflation. The administration didn't bother to notify parents about the increase when the decision was made. Many found out about it through an article in the student newspaper.
It is astounding to me that institutions like Duke keep raising tuition. And that may be because many parents, grateful that their children have the privilege of attending this elite university, are wary of speaking out. Joining with other parents, I started a petition protesting the tuition increases in the hopes of drawing attention to the institution's disinterest in the limited budgets of college parents and, in some cases, in the ability of parents to send their child at all. A parent of a child at Northwestern University started a petition there as well.
In just two weeks, 169 students, parents and alumni signed the Duke petition, indicating that there is a wider level of concern. The school's student newspaper wrote about it in this article.
One parent who signed the petition said, "Duke promotes that it has very generous financial aid, yet as a member of the middle class, it's not available to my daughter. This tuition increase consumes two months of my annual retirement income. I'm a single mom and yet my daughter only qualified for a small loan and work study. I honestly don't know how my daughter is going to be able to pay tuition, especially with the hikes. After her sophomore year, I'll be tapped out."
Rapidly rising costs of tuition are unsustainable for many middle class parents and students, who often are forced to take out loans or exhaust savings in order to make tuition payments. Significant tuition increases are a relentless trend at elite educational institutions, which often look to each other to guide their decisions. These decisions to hike tuition year after year are mostly undertaken without public scrutiny or discussion, with parents often learning of the bad news when they get their annual tuition bill. And they're entirely legal. As non-profits, the universities and colleges are entitled to raise tuition as they see fit, subject only to typical supply and demand economics. As if that's not enough, we receive frequent pleas from the school to contribute to this already bloated endowment. However, that unchecked pricing freedom has reached a tipping point. The U.S. Congress recently announced an investigation of 56 private colleges and universities which have continued to raise tuition, despite having endowments ranging from over $1 billion to as much as $37 billion. Members of The House Ways and Means Committee are considering taxing endowment income or forcing the wealthy schools to use their endowments to curb soaring tuition costs. My hope is that the customers of these schools will begin to speak out as well.
Despite the concern articulated by politicians about college affordability, including Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, there seems to be no real awareness at these institutions as to how these increases are affecting their customers. With record low acceptance rates of well under ten percent this year for students applying for admission to many top-ranked schools (Stanford's was at 4.69 percent, Harvard's, which President Obama's daughter will attend, was 5.2 percent), fewer students than ever will have the opportunity to attend an elite college, and fewer still when the costs become prohibitive. When my friend whose child is at Northwestern asked the Student Financial Services Office if tuition would be raised this fall, she was told that there always is an increase in tuition from three to five percent per year, made known in the fall. In a blasé manner, he explained by phone, "Just take this year's costs, $68,095, and multiply that by five percent and you'll get your answer." Northwestern's tuition rose from $28,524 in 2004 to $48,624 in 2015. Is there no ceiling in sight? And what is driving the need for such increases when massive endowments continue to go untapped?
We must begin the dialogue on how to stop these tuition increases. Though many of the colleges provide substantial financial aid to the poorest of students, the group being squeezed is the middle class. Having a diverse range of students -- from all income levels -- is key as we seek to educate future leaders at these institutions. "Tuition at this elite institution is in danger of outstripping the value of the education to students," said one parent commenting on the Duke petition. If this trend continues, only the very wealthy or the very poor who are given full rides will be able to attend these schools. Is that what we expect from our leading private academic institutions?
Here is the list of schools under investigation. If you see your alma mater here, or have a student who is attending this or any other institution where tuition is out of control, please consider signing this petition.