On March 16, the President’s Office sent an email to students and other members of the College community announcing the Comprehensive Fee for the 2012-2013 academic year. The fee, which covers tuition, room and board, will be increased to $55,510. This represents a four percent increase over the 2011-2012 fee, making it approximately double the rate of inflation over the same period of time. The Comprehensive Fee is determined each year by the Board of Trustees based on the recommendations of the Administration, after consultation with the Committee on Priorities and Resources, which represents student and faculty opinions to the Administration regarding the College’s budget priorities.
College Treasurer Peter Shea said the sharp increase reflected the rising cost of post-secondary education in the United States.
“Colleges like Amherst are very labor intensive. Close to 60 percent of the operating budget is for salary and benefits to all employees of the College. In order to give meaningful raises to the employees…and provide competitive benefits (retirement, health insurance, etc.), the College needs to raise revenue in excess of inflation as well. In addition, as a residential College, the other large expenses in the budget are directly tied to the buildings … A major expense is housing and providing food to students. These expenses also go up, most also in excess of general inflation … Another major expense, library materials, also increase in excess of general inflation. These facts make it very hard to keep increases in the comprehensive fee at or below inflation without reducing the level of service, instructional or living, to the students,” Shea said.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics indices for food and energy show that these costs have increased by 3.3 and 4.6 percent respectively over the past 12 months, and accounting for a significant portion of the Fee increase, but the majority of the Fee increase appears to stem from increases in salary and benefits expenses for College employees. This year’s Fee increase is relatively low compared to the five percent annual increases over the past two years, and the 4.6 percent average annual increase over the past ten years.
According to the College Board, average tuition at American colleges and universities has increased by over 130 percent since 1992. In addition, the Comprehensive Fee at the College has risen by $18,600, or 50.4 percent since 2003. For comparison, median income in the United States has barely kept up with inflation, meaning that the real cost of post-secondary education has increased enormously for middle-class families. Many experts, such as financial aid guru Mark Krantowitz, say that such high increases are unsustainable and serve to increase economic inequality in the United States.
Shea acknowledged the complexity of the issue concerning the high stated fees in higher education and felt that one of the problems is that the general public and many families looking at college costs do not understand how financial aid works.
“Institutions like Amherst provide the necessary financial aid for families that cannot afford the sticker price. For those students and families Amherst is addressing the cost issue in a meaningful way,” Shea said.
This rate of tuition increases is comparable to increases at Amherst’s peer institutions, Williams, for example, saw a 4.1 percent increase from $54,545 to $56,770, while Wesleyan saw a 3.9 percent increase from $56,036 to $58,232. Other institutions, such as Middlebury, have policies in place to ensure that tuition increases do not deviate too far from the previous year’s rate of inflation. Bowdoin announces the proposed budget and tuition increases about a month before Board of Trustees votes to allow for input from the community before the Board makes the final decision.
College Director of Media Relations Caroline Hanna said that the College was prepared to handle increased demand for financial aid that will come as a result of the Fee increase.
“The College’s policy on financial aid is that Amherst meets the full demonstrated need of every student, and that has not changed with the comprehensive fee increase. Since financial aid has always been a priority for Amherst in terms of budgeting and fundraising, the College has set aside ample resources for the Office of Financial Aid to deal with increased need on the part of students. Keep in mind, too, that the majority of students do not even pay full price: During this academic year, for example, 55 percent of students are receiving scholarship and grant aid from Amherst and the average college aid package is $39,541,” Hanna said.