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Tufts Joins the 50K Club

News & Features | November 23, 2009

On November 1, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that college costs are soaring nationwide. This year, 58 private schools are charging $50,000 or more for tuition and room and board, known as the university’s “total cost.” This is a striking increase from the 2008-2009 academic year, when only five colleges fell into this category. Most of the schools that entered the “50K club” this year, including Tufts University, are small liberal arts colleges located in or around the Northeast.
This year, Tufts charged $51,088 in total charges. According to the Chronicle, it is the 20th most expensive university in the country and the highest priced school in the greater Boston area, beating out neighbors such as Harvard University and Boston University.

With many buildings still lacking in wireless Internet capability, an athletic center that has yet to be renovated, a health center that is closed on Sundays, and a library café that’s only functioning after noon, it’s understandable that Tufts students and parents alike are wondering: why is Tufts so expensive?

According to Kim Thurler, Tufts’ Director of Public Relations, Tufts didn’t see cutting faculty as a plausible solution to lowering undergraduate tuition in an economically difficult time. “It’s important to keep in mind that reducing faculty and stuff would also hurt students,” Thurler said. Tufts is consistently recognized for its small class size and has one of the highest percentages of classes with fewer than 20 students (73% according to US News & World Report’s rankings). “Such cuts would result in larger classes, fewer new, young faculty teaching new subjects, fewer opportunities for undergraduates to work in close contact with faculty.”

With expenses higher as a result of economic distress, staff cuts would also lead to fewer research librarians and university counselors, and longer lines in Dowling Hall, which would decrease students’ overall experience. By increasing the tuition, Thurler said, Tufts has “been able to avoid widespread layoffs that some other institutions have experienced.”
Regardless of their dedication to supporting faculty, however, Thurler said that the university has eliminated raises for most employees and put all non-essential hiring on hold. Furthermore, all employees earning more than $50,000 have had their salaries frozen. Tufts cut its non-research budget by about $36 million and deferred capital projects, such as the integrated research laboratory that was in planning stages. “Virtually every department and every office cut back, often going to great lengths to not even spend all of their lowered budgets,” Thurler said.

According to Dean of Undergraduate Education James Glaser, schools like Tufts with budget models that are more tuition driven tend to be more immune to changes in the economy than those institutions that are dependent on the interest of their endowments. “If you’re budget is largely fed by an endowment, as is true down the street [at Harvard], then you’re very vulnerable. Large numbers of staff have lost their jobs there. We’ve been a little more secure than Harvard, which isn’t to say that we didn’t tighten our belts considerably. There was pain felt. Hopefully it wasn’t pain that students saw… members of the staff did extra work, went without raises. We did more with the same amount of people, or with fewer people, as a response to the fiscal crisis.”

Undergraduate tuition also makes possible the implementation of programs such as the senior thesis programs, university seminars, and summer scholars. Additionally, it allows Tufts to fund a wide array of student programming, ranging from sports teams to events held at the various culture centers, Thurler said. Additional areas that tuition dollars go towards include the Academic Resource Center, the Institute for Global Leadership, Career Services, the Chaplaincy, and the entire Dowling Hall operation.

“This is not a place where there’s a lot of fat or waste,” Glaser said. “The staff works really hard and we’re not interested in collecting every tuition dollar to live high on the hog. The hope is that we offer lots of opportunities and have a terrific faculty and have excellent laboratories and that we support the creation of knowledge and not just the transmission of knowledge. And that’s expensive.”

According to Glaser, Tufts’ facilities, which tuition also helps to support, have improved a great deal throughout the past 20 years. “If you look at what’s happened in the time I’ve been at Tufts, as dean for the last six years and in the political science department for 18 years, the change on campus is incredible,” he said. “The new music building, the new political science building, Sophia Gordon Hall… the library doubled in size in the late ‘90s and went from a sub-standard library to a state-of-the-art library. The research labs at 200 Boston Avenue, the Gantcher field house. There are other things on the agenda, and it does take some time to be able to accomplish them.”

Glaser recognized that students have been waiting for a renovated fitness center and increased wireless in buildings, and emphasized that facilities are very expensive to build and maintain. “I totally understand that people have complaints, and those complaints can be legitimate,” he said. “But the fact is, if you look at what’s happened to this place under the Bacow administration, the change has been huge. And the value of your degree goes up, and that’s something that you carry around with you. It would be great if we had wireless in every building and there are always places where we could get better. But there’s been a lot of change.”

According to an e-mail that President Lawrence Bacow sent to the Tufts community on March 11, 2009, Tufts has five major sources of revenue: tuition and fees, income on the endowment, gifts for current use, research revenue, and income from clinical operations performed at Tufts’ School of Dental Medicine and the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “In this environment, nothing would please me more than being able to freeze the tuition,” he said in the e-mail. “Ultimately, the need to balance our budget means we cannot do so.”

Thurler points out that while Tufts’ overall cost has surpassed $50,000, the increase in tuition and fees for the 2009-2010 academic school year is the smallest it’s been in almost five decades. “Knowing that many families were feeling the pain of the recession, Tufts made every effort to keep increases in tuition and fees in check,” she said. “Last year’s increase in tuition and fees was the lowest in 45 years: 3.5 percent.”

To help students and their families combat rising costs, financial aid grew by 12 percent this year, and Tufts claims to have met 100 percent of its students’ need for assistance. According to Bacow, financial aid was the only expense in the university budget that was increased. 50 percent of undergraduates currently receive some form of assistance, which includes grants, work/study positions throughout the university, and student loans. According to Thurler, the average grant is $27,000, which is more than half the cost of attending Tufts. Pell Grants, which are doled out to the most financially strained students, increased from $550 last year to $670 this year.

But what about the 50 percent of students that aren’t receiving financial aid? They are still paying $50,000 for an education at Tufts, and it can often be hard for these students to find jobs, as they often only go to students eligible for work/study.
“Financial aid is only one piece of this,” Glaser said. “If you think about what comes from that 50,000, you’re part of a community, you’re being taught by highly specialized people, you’re [part of] a research agenda.” Students that pay full tuition “are gaining by being in a school with a diverse student body, and I think a large amount of their tuition dollars go towards supporting a high quality education. My hope is that people take advantage of the opportunity, because not everyone [does]. We know it’s expensive for your parents to send you here, and we hope you take full advantage of what we have to offer.”