Thomson: The Real Cost of $20.16

by Bryan Thomson | 4/27/16 6:15pm

With just over a month until Commencement, my inbox has been besieged by cheerful blitzes encouraging me to contribute to the Senior Class Gift. These contributions are supposed to make a Dartmouth education affordable for the entering freshman class. More realistically, the recommended donations of $20.16 barely dent one of the more expensive price tags in the Ivy League: a $66,174 direct cost of attendance for the 2016-2017 school year. The Senior Class Gift’s primary utility, rather, is as an indicator of the graduating class’s satisfaction with the college, used as a public relations tool to compare our rate of giving with those at our peer institutions.

It is tragicomic that the Senior Class Gift committee asks for contributions from a class that has yet to make a cent beyond Hanover – a class whose individual members, on average, carry a $15,660 debt burden. When an institution as rich as Dartmouth, whose endowment stands at $4.7 billion, relies on the generosity of indebted seniors to complete next year’s financial aid packages, affordability is not being prioritized properly. I am choosing not to contribute to Dartmouth because of its repeated failure to provide the best possible undergraduate education at a reasonable price. While I am thankful for benefiting from financial aid, the tutelage of world-class professors, flexibility in my off terms and a diverse student body, each of these aspects critical to my education has suffered due to misguided decisions.

In the four years since my matriculation, I have struggled to support or even justify a single major policy decision that the administration has put forth. My friends and I have experienced a decline in the well-being and independence allotted to the student body with each passing year. For example, despite opposition from the student body, College President Phil Hanlon’s “Moving Dartmouth Forward” policy initiative banned hard alcohol consumption on campus, regardless of age, and instituted walkthroughs to monitor dorm activities. Associated harsh penalties have forced high-risk freshman parties underground, creating a perverse incentive structure to avoid seeking treatment for alcohol poisoning. The silent, duplicitous war on the Greek system has decreased my and others’ houses’ autonomy through an ever-expanding series of nonsensical, unnecessary regulations. None of the additional bureaucracy or monitoring is welcome, yet it grows each term. The administration has rapidly cultivated a tense, bitter and beleaguered campus climate.

Recently, even more serious changes have left me astounded at the disconnect between student needs and administrative directive. While I was able to take advantage of my Advanced Placement credits to travel abroad, reduce my course load over stressful quarters and save tuition, AP credits are no longer accepted as course credits for the Class of 2018 and beyond. Similarly, the decision to end need-blind admissions for international students and to reinstate need-aware policies is extremely disheartening. I have friends who only applied to and enrolled at Dartmouth because it was one of the only affordable schools for them. I do not want to imagine a Dartmouth without these deserving people.

Finally, and most disturbingly, the recent choice to invest some many millions of dollars — the exact number is publicly unavailable — to create temporary tent structures for new housing communities is as absurd as it sounds. Freshmen will continue to live in the Choates, moldy cinder-block housing from the late 1950s, and the River, where the tiny rooms flooded my freshman year, while newly hired assistant directors dream up more ways to funnel student life into pre-selected, pre-approved activities.

I refuse to contribute to an institution that prioritizes misguided projects over student initiatives. In conjunction, these decisions have worsened my Dartmouth experience, all while painting a clear picture of Hanlon’s vision for the College. The administration prioritizes the superficial, regulating affiliation and enrollment from the top down. Now, more time is devoted to renaming Greek Letter Organizations and Societies than to improving the more pressing issues that students actually struggle with on campus: affordability, sexual assault and mental health, among others. The administration’s understanding of progress stands in sharp contrast to Dartmouth’s old values of striving to cultivate an independent, critically-minded student body in an affordable manner. These values influenced my decision to attend Dartmouth, yet we may soon find the College an irreparably damaged shell of its former self.

Investment is a zero sum activity. If money is spent on tent cities, this same money does not fund international student aid or professors’ salaries. If you choose to donate to the Senior Fund, this frees up money to be spent on more deans, more superficial fixes and more community walkthroughs. If Dartmouth truly cared to “make an experience like ours a reality for future members of the Class of 2020,” to borrow the words of a recent Dartmouth College Fund email, then the administration would devote its already bountiful funds to attracting the best and brightest, regardless of nationality or economic background.

I eagerly await the day when issues of affordability and quality of education take precedence over lip service and press releases. I hope my classmates reflect on what their donations entail, and how such contributions affirm the administration’s vision. Where student opposition has failed, collective action may be effective. I have no doubt that the College is extremely sensitive to alumni satisfaction and is loath to permanently lose decades-long financial support. Beginning with our Class of 2016, alumni solidarity in refusing to donate may alert the higher-ups that their deaf policies aren’t as beloved as they seem through the rose-colored windows at Parkhurst Hall.

I came to Dartmouth to grow, not to be stifled. I leave hoping to improve our community, not to pass through it silently. Until the administration seeks student input before making decisions, I cannot in good faith contribute to the College while its leaders callously march on into the vale.