Students voice concern at tuition talk
By Irene C. Kuo
Students raised concerns about the future quality of the student body, sources of wasted money, the future of need-blind admissions policy, and deficit-control measures at Thursday's tuition forum with President Paul E. Gray '54 and other administration officials.
About 15 students and 25 administration officers and staff attended the event, which was organized by the Undergraduate Association. It was the first forum on a tuition increase held in MIT's history, according to Manuel Rodriguez '89, former UA president.
"We felt a need to inform the community that tuition and self-help increases were necessary and to explain how the process works," UA President Jonathan Katz '90 said. "Our hope was that Gray's memorandum and the forum would open up the issue, not that the figures would be changed. We also hoped students would realize that the figures were not arbitrarily set, that the people who set them are not sadists." Tuition and the self-help level may each rise by 8 percent next year.
Several students asked Gray if he thought the tuition increase would drive qualified students to other schools. "You said that salary increases are necessary to keep the quality of the faculty, and that these account for a large portion of the increase in educational costs," one student addressed Gray. "What if students can't afford the tuition, decide not to come to MIT, and then some of the faculty leave because of the lower quality of students?"
Gray responded that the distribution by family income of MIT freshman aid applicants across national income quartiles has been stable. In fact, the number of applicants in the lowest quartile has increased by 3 percent over the past 3-4 years, and the highest quartile has decreased by 3 percent, he said.
"[These figures] show that our practices have not caused us to lose the middle class, and that if there is any trend, it has been positive. We have the popular myth about private education," Gray noted. "Fifteen percent of our financial aid applicants fall in the lowest income quartile, about 25 in each of the middle quartiles, and 35 percent in the highest income quartile." He acknowledged that the national distribution of family income is approximately 30, 30, 30, and 10 percent, from lowest income to highest, "but it is known that there is a correlation between economic circumstances and who goes to college and what kind of college."
Rodriguez suggested that tuition increases be larger so that the self-help level remains the same. "Students here do not start on equal footing since some feel that they have to work 10 hours a week," Rodriguez said. "They don't know that all of self-help doesn't have to be from work-study. A lot of my friends who pay full tuition would be willing to pay the extra in tuition that would be needed to keep the self-help level down."
Gray agreed that a trade-off was involved, but that the increase in tuition to keep self-help level low would have to be a yearly occurrence
In response to one student's examples of "blatant waste of money," such as the Student Center renovations that ran over-budget, past temporary Student Center renovations, and over-heated dorm rooms, Gray said that the renovations were necessary and that the Institute was trying to become more energy-efficient, though spending on energy conservation measures should not exceed the money saved.
"Many of the buildings were built at a time when the cost of energy was not a strong consideration, when heating and lighting technology were not very advanced. Since 1973, the first energy crisis, we've been working to improve heating and ventilation," Gray said. "The last time I checked, we had cut energy demand by one third if we had not taken the measures." added.
"The consumer price index is not a good reflection of the costs we have in a science/technology-based institution," undertaking both renovation and construction, said James J. Culliton, vice president for financial operations.
"The new life-sciences building will have classroom space, faculty offices, and labs," Gray said, answering a question about how much of the building will be devoted to educational purposes. "More than one-half of the biology faculty, along with their graduate students and UROP students, will work there. Without the facility, the faculty would not be able to do their work and biology education for students would be affected as well."
The actual number of students who will be affected may be small, Gray conceded, but the number does not measure the importance of "this world-class department to the Institute." In addition, the bulk of the cost for the new building will not come from tuition, as it will be built with federal support, gift funds, and tax-exempt bond issues, Gray said.
Joost Bonsen '90 asked if MIT could sustain its need-blind admissions policy in the face of annual tuition and self-help increases.
Gray said that the policy was very important to the Institute. "I was a student and then a faculty member when the policy didn't exist, and I was very aware of the inequities of merit-based scholarships. It is extremely important to tell students to apply and to tell them that aid is available [in order] to preserve the quality of student body."
Gray also repeated his claim that the endowment is not adequate to cover all costs, since some donors put restraints on how the money will be used. "Some gifts don't bear on education at all, and some not on research at all," he said. "We just hope that endowment will grow at least as fast as the inflation rate." The endowment is currently growing around 8 to 10 percent per year.
Another student questioned the wisdom of increasing enrollment as a deficit-control measure. Enrollment in the past three classes was cut to ease the housing situation.
In response, Gray stressed the difference between average cost and marginal cost. Whereas average cost per student is about twice tuition (tuition covers only one-half of the cost of education at MIT), marginal cost is very small--about one-third of tuition per student, considering that one-half of the students are needy and that average need is two-thirds of tuition, according to Gray. "However, if we add 5000 students, marginal cost will be much higher," he said.
Though he had not had high expectations, Katz was a a little disappointed by the low student turnout. "I hope students realize that they had the chance to ask questions about the changing financial situation at MIT. I did all I could as an elected official and to show that I care. If people don't want to come, there is nothing I can do. I can be the messenger, but I can't dictate the message," Katz said.
Katz said that though tuition riots were fairly common in the past, the long weekend, the changing student body, and the abundance of other school-wide issues such as the proposed curricular changes, the pornography policy, and the alcohol policy could have affected turnout.
"Students have a limited amount of time," he said.