The Board of Trustees recently approved a 4.3 percent tuition increase for the 2017-2018 academic year, bringing the total cost of a Duke undergraduate education to an estimated $68,298. As always, hordes of discontented students and their distraught parents went on Facebook to express their distaste at having to finance what is quickly becoming a gold-plated Duke education. Although an annual four percent tuition increase is often not surprising (it is even expected), the idea of having to fork over yet another few thousand dollars with no further explanation on the part of the administration is irksome to many Duke students. As active stakeholders of Duke University, we should be offered a concrete, detailed explanation detailing the exact reasons and provisions behind such increases rather than through a terse bureaucratic edict.
In 1997, Duke’s undergraduate tuition was sticker priced at a $20,050 a year. By 2007 that figure had increased to $34,335 a year. In the span of nearly 20 years alone, tuition has ballooned to over 2.5 times its 1997 price. Though the university was in a weaker place compared to its peer institutions twenty years ago (the endowment was only valued at $1,190,460,000 in 1997), it is hard to justify that a 2.5 increase in tuition equates exactly to a 2.5 increase in the value of a Duke education in the same time span.
The administration’s response to such tuition increases has been that they are necessary and indispensable for improving the quality of undergraduate education at Duke. In 2014, former executive vice-provost, Jim Roberts, publically claimed that Duke invests “on average about $90,000 in the education of each student” and that in essence a Duke education was a “discount.” At that time, Duke also provided a breakdown of where it was spending its budget–approximately half of which goes into financial aid and faculty compensation. Though vague, the information Duke provided was a step toward transparency. Along the same lines, each year, Duke should release a formal report detailing where the annual tuition increase will be allocated towards.
While the administration can justify an annual four percent tuition hike by claiming that they are spending even more on financial aid, such a claim neglects to include the nearly 3300 Duke undergraduates who pay full freight. Many of these students can hardly be considered “middle class” by any national measures, as outlined in the NY Times expose on the socioeconomic demographics of elite universities. Nonetheless, the burden of having to pay the full $70,000 is still daunting, especially to those from families making just enough to exclude them from financial aid or Duke’s international students ineligible for federal financial aid.
Of course, Duke is not alone among its peer institutions in increasing its tuition at a rate of about four percent each year. Brown and Penn recently announced similar tuition increases of four percent and 3.9 percent respectively. Nevertheless, if we as an institution truly pride ourselves as being different from our ivied northern peers—more forward thinking, more youthful, more adventurous—then we should seek to deviate from this norm of constantly increasing our tuition at the expense of cash strapped full freight students. If the administration sees it as absolutely necessary to increase Duke’s tuition, then we should be provided a thorough explanation detailing the rationale behind the new price sticker.
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