Wang: No Tuition Without Representation

by Ethan Wang | 4/27/11 10:00pm

Whoever thinks Dartmouth students are entitled and unruly need only to look across the pond to Great Britain. Last fall, when the government-mandated cap on university tuitions increased to a whopping 9,000 pounds (about $15,000), British students gathered in the tens of thousands to riot, vandalize streets and throw things at the royal family. And now, as the Scottish Parliament considers letting colleges in Scotland actually charge tuition, there are fears that chaos will once again ensue.

Here in the United States, we have been much more compliant. Despite already absurd tuition costs that rise every year, even amid tough economic times, students and their families are as eager as ever to shell out for costly universities. Dartmouth's recent tuition increase and elimination of the no-loan financial aid policy certainly did not prevent another record-setting application cycle. And while many current students have grumbled about the hikes, we ultimately succumb to the supposedly inevitable cost of receiving a quality education.

Middle-class American families accept that they need to give up an arm and a leg to allow their children to attend elite private institutions, and that even respectable state schools are not that much cheaper nowadays. We have acquiesced to the bleak reality that the education necessary to move ahead in life costs upwards of a $100,000, and that parents need to start saving for college before their children are even born. No one is happy with how things are, but we have accepted the myth that there is no better way to go about it.

But Great Britain's example shows us that there is a better way. Students who attend Oxford and Cambridge currently pay the equivalent of $5,000 per year. British schools are largely able to maintain their affordability through government funding, even though their taxes are only slightly higher than ours. Our politicians evidently feel there are better ways to spend taxpayer money than on higher education. However, the financial inaccessibility of an American college education reflects a growing social problem that government officials cannot continue to ignore.

Yet the government is not the only party at fault. Even without heavy federal funding, American colleges were, until recently, reasonably priced. The total cost of attending Dartmouth in 1995 was $25,720. By 2000, it had reached $34,458. Next year, it will be $55,365. Although there has certainly been inflation during this period, it has been far outpaced by tuition growth. And while the College has expanded since 1995, few would argue that the quality of a Dartmouth education has improved enough to merit charging students an additional $30,000 annually.

It's anyone's guess how the College spends all the additional money we pay, and no one seems eager to fight for the College to release the information. Just as we succumbed to the never-ending tuition increases, we have more or less accepted the fact that our school operates as a black box. When I asked President Kim last year about bringing more transparency to the College's finances, he responded that it's impossible to release financial details because Dartmouth is a private institution. It's as though the administration believes that specifics on how the College spends its money are closely guarded industrial secrets that our peers will jump to exploit if released. Yet, with some of us paying the College upwards of $50,000 a year, we have the right to know exactly where all this money is going and to work to with the administration to address possible unnecessary spending.

Of course, Dartmouth's tuition increases are comparable to the national trend, and all private schools are quite secretive about their expenses. In order to begin to solve this nationwide problem, we need to demand changes to the way these intuitions operate. Private universities with non-profit status and government research funding need to be governed by the same sunshine laws that state institutions face. And while a government-mandated tuition cap like in Great Britain might be taking regulation too far, there should be a mechanism for appealing tuition increases that students feel are unreasonable.

This country has come a long way from the days when unfair taxation caused colonists to throw tea off ships and engage in a war for independence. Back then, the British met our unruliness with disdain. Now, it's the British who are rising up to defend their affordable college tuitions, while we Americans sit back and passively watch our own tuitions increase exponentially. It is time to stop accepting the status quo and realize that we can do better.