Colorado School of Mines President Bill Scoggins recently dispelled what he called misinformation that the university paid for construction projects through higher tuition prices, pointing to private funding sources and attributing the year-over-year tuition rise to cuts in state funding for higher education.
Last year, tuition at Mines was $13,590 for residents and $28,620 for nonresidents. Most people on campus are probably aware of these numbers and take heart in the high average starting salaries of graduates. However, if you compare these prices with those from past years, you will find that they have been steadily rising. This year, they are up 8% and 5%, respectively from the 2011-2012 school year.
Tuition inflation is a nationwide trend. In fact, since 1995 tuition at public universities has risen by around 30%. To keep pace with rising costs, students have had to take on more debt and according to a report from the Institute of College Access and Success, students of the class of 2011 graduated with a national average of $26,500 in student loans. Just one year before, this number was about a thousand dollars lower. Legislatures nationwide are cutting funding for higher education and individual universities have therefore had to shift these costs to their student bodies.
These numbers far outpace the rate of inflation and they tend to puzzle both parents and students. Instead of tracing these increases to the changing dynamics between state schools and state governments, some incorrectly trace the increases to concrete additions around campus. It is not out of the ordinary to hear students and parents complain that new buildings are behind the tuition hikes.
This assumption makes sense given the correlation between the increases in tuition and the construction of new buildings. In the past two years alone, the school built a new dorm, a new wing for the Brown building, a student wellness center, and a Petroleum Engineering building (Marquez Hall). They have also renovated the old wing of Brown and the Weaver towers and, on top of all this, the school recently announced plans to construct a football stadium and athletics complex, another student dorm, a dining hall, a building for the Foundation and Alumni Association, and renovations to the student center. It is an ambitious and pricey list and, in the absence of other explanations, it makes sense to assume that students will foot the bill. However, President Scoggins’s recent interview with the Oredigger clarified that increasing tuition is not related to new projects on campus.
In response to concerns that projects like new dormitories or dining halls would affect tuition, Scoggins explains that these are called “auxiliaries [and] are separate from the academic enterprise.” Therefore, instead of raising general student fees, these buildings are paid for by the “fees associated with the use of them.” That means that students who did not get to experience the luxury of Maple Hall did not actually have to pay for it. Instead, the school takes out 30-year bonds and pays them back with the revenues generated from housing and meal plan fees.
These types of projects tend to bear the brunt of negative comments, given their lack of academic focus. Fancy dorms and dining halls are nice, but they do little to increase the value of a student’s degree upon graduation. However, Scoggins disagrees and believes that these projects are key to making the Mines education more worthwhile for students. He claims that “University is a balance of academic projects [and] non-academic projects and…we’ve probably focused more in the last six or seven years on the academic side.” Scoggins sees student life and academic success as intrinsically connected and he hopes that by improving the quality of life on campus, he will also improve graduation rates and student retention.
As to the construction of new academic buildings, these projects actually do affect tuition but only in maintenance costs. Tuition is a reflection of the operating cost of the school and usually does not include the capitol costs of new projects. For example, the recently completed Marquez Hall was almost entirely funded by private donations. Student fees were only used to subsidize part of the building used for campus computing. Similarly, the new athletics complex will also be completely paid for by outside support. Student tuition, will only be used to maintain and staff the building after their construction.
Instead, Scoggins traces the rise in tuition to increased faculty needs as well as inflation and indicates that they are customary increases. “We want to add more faculty,” says Scoggins “[and] we’ve got infrastructure needs including maintenance of existing facilities.” These are far more reasonable sources of tuition inflation and they are issues that schools across the country are attempting to tackle.
Recruiting top students often means increasing tuition as well. For example, hiring top ranking professors means offering higher compensation. Hiring more faculty members in order to decrease class sizes and make the institution more alluring to prospective students means financing more salaries with student tuition. Finally, keeping the education on campus up to date by upgrading labs and teaching technologies is often reflected in the yearly tuition increase.
Probably the biggest reason for tuition inflation, however, resides in the changing relationship between state governments and state schools. State schools have been forced to deal with the effects of decreasing state funds. According to Scoggins “everyone is seeing this transition in the State’s ability to fund higher education.” In 2010, the University signed an agreement with the state of Colorado, that Scoggins said, “gave our board tuition autonomy in exchange for pledging that any revenues from the state would go to discount resident student tuition.” This year Mines received 15 million from the state and had an operating budget of around $230 million, meaning the state only provided about 6.5% of the budget. The rest of it was paid for by Mines.
The benefit of becoming less dependent on the state is that Mines has gained increased flexibility and control over its own finances. For example, since Mines no longer uses government money to construct new buildings, the administration does not have to seek approval from the state to increase tuition or build newer buildings. However, the downside is that students are forced to compensate for the lack of state support and while Mines’ financial independence is making them look more and more like a private school, they still lack the large endowment that enables private schools to survive outside of the government.
Schools like Harvard and Princeton actually cost more to attend than Mines at first glance, but their large endowments mean that the majority of this price is covered by financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships. Scoggins explains that “the fact remains today, it is cheaper for a Colorado resident to go to Cal Tech than it is to go to Colorado School of Mines because they have such a huge endowment.” As state funds decrease, Mines will become increasingly reliant on its ability to bring in money from outside donors. This is a problem that Scoggins hopes we will be able to tackle with increased fundraising efforts, ultimately making the institution both more autonomous from the state and more affordable for students.