For the 2016-17 academic year, the comprehensive fee for attending Lawrence University will be $54,498; this is a 2.92 percent increase from last year’s total cost of attendance. On Monday, Feb. 8, President Mark Burstein sent an email announcing this figure to the student body. This much-dreaded annual announcement was met with its usual response of groans and financial uncertainty from many students on campus.
Part of Burstein’s announcement emphasized that this will be “the second year in a row Lawrence has held fee increases below three percent. These two years represent the smallest percentage increases over the past 20 years.” These facts are notable compared to other similar liberal arts schools. While $54,498 remains an outrageous sum, this comprehensive fee is actually quite comparable to other liberal arts schools around the country.
This announcement also included two encouraging statements about the state of finances on campus. First, donors have pledged $59 million of the $75 million campaign to make Lawrence a full-need institution—a university that allows for no gap between a student’s financial need and their allocated financial aid. Along with that, the cap for financial aid given to students studying abroad has been increased from $5,600 to $8,000. This change could make study abroad significantly more accessible for all students.
As noted above, however, we are not yet a full need university. This raises serious questions about the decision to raise tuition at all. Until Lawrence can fully fund all student needs, any decision to raise tuition burdens the student body. Furthermore, donations are not immediately given after being pledged, but rather, are given over time in smaller installments. Encouraging as this fundraising has been, students who currently attend Lawrence will likely never reap its benefits.
As low as a 2.9 percent increase may be, there are many schools in the country that are adopting alternative policies with financial aid. For example, several colleges throughout the United States have employed tuition freezes, pledging to cut expenses rather than increase student debt. One such college is the University of Illinois, which has announced its second year in a row of freezing tuition. Private institutions such as Mount Holyoke University and Wisconsin’s own Northland College have each used tuition freezes at some point in the past five years.
However, embracing the idea of a tuition freeze automatically assumes that the financial burden of students should take precedence over quite literally everything else: faculty and staff wages, operating fees, quality of life and, ultimately, quality of education. Tuition freezes can only be accomplished through budget cuts. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker recently promised another two-year tuition freeze within the University of Wisconsin school system; this pledge will accompany massive budget cuts for tax money going toward public higher education. Where tuition and fees will remain stagnant, compensation for faculty and staff—along with the quality of education, operation and facilities—will seriously suffer. It is hard to imagine a tuition freeze at Lawrence that will not incur similar problems.
Not all schools are taking measures as drastic as tuition freezes. Instead, many are pledging to help students who fall within specific demographics. The University of Chicago has pledged to allow all admitted Chicago natives to graduate debt-free. Other schools have targeted certain financial or residential demographics of students to diminish financial strain for those with the greatest need. These groups include undocumented immigrants and those who fall within the lowest income brackets.
The struggle to combat raises in college tuition is one faced by university administrators all over the world. There are sure to be many challenges and complications involved in each annual decision regarding cost of attendance. However, this university’s administrators could demonstrate their commitment to equal access by making one pledge: The Lawrence University Board of Trustees should pledge not to raise tuition for any admitted students in the lowest income brackets until we become a full need institution.