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$56,810: Why tuition is so damn high

by Madeleine Thompson

What’s the price of a Kenyon education? Measuring the value of a Kenyon education, monetarily and in intangible benefits, is difficult, but one thing is certain: it could be a lot more expensive. Kenyon charged $56,810 for the academic year 2012-13, but it’s possible that price is a discount.

According to Associate Vice President for Finance Todd Burson, it depends on how you define it. “At the end of the day … this total cost is $73,000 per student, but the College is only charging 56,” Burson said.

Kenyon is expensive, and its cost continues to rise. But behind a diploma’s sticker price is a more complicated story. Tuition is but one source of revenue for Kenyon — with those other sources keeping tuition down. And as administrators address  backlash over the rising cost of college, they say they are confronting a reality when it comes to tuition: for families and students, every dollar counts.

Kenyon’s aggregate operating cost is a little more than $125 million per year. If Kenyon only gathered revenue from students’ tuition, it would still cost approximately $17,000 to cover each student’s share of that budget. But the College’s balance sheet isn’t so simple. Kenyon derives revenue from five other sources besides tuition and fees: support from reserves (stocks and bonds the College has invested in), endowment

income, gifts, auxiliary income (like Bookstore sales and visiting summer camps) and miscellaneous pools (temporary earnings from short-term investments).

“Students are paying roughly 77 percent of the cost [of running the College],” Burson said. “But we really need $125 million to do what we do, and so if we didn’t get money from any of these other five sources and charged students for everything, we’d be billing them $73,720. … These other sources of revenue are what hold that down for students.”

For some, cost is the first thing that draws their eye when applying to college, but not always in a bad way.

“Even though [the University of California] is a public school and I’m a resident of California, it’s cheaper for me to go here,” said Katie Low ’16, citing her sizable financial aid package. “Financially and in terms of the institution, it’s a better deal for me.”

Eighty percent of Kenyon’s financial aid budget goes to need-based financial aid and the other 20 percent goes to merit aid. “It’s almost like shooting at a moving target, if you will,” Director of Financial Aid Craig Daugherty said, describing budgeting as a “very complex question.”

“It’s not an exact science. … There’s so much flexibility, there’s so much potential for movement, and all families have different income levels and different need levels,” he added.

Tuition from every student, those paying in full and those receiving some kind of aid, is collected together and distributed among four main budget areas: instructional support, academic support, student services and financial aid. “The key here that I always try to emphasize is you want to be spending most of your money on things that directly impact the students,” Burson said, calculating that Kenyon spends about two-thirds of its budget on students.

The Kenyon budget also goes toward expenses related to housing and meals, buildings and renovations, information services — like computers — and cash reserves. A few of the factors in the considerable cost of tuition, according to Burson, are Kenyon’s commitment to sustainability and local food and a 9.5:1 student-faculty ratio.

“We think we get very, very good teachers,” Interim Provost Joe Klesner said. “Students apparently think so, too. … I know what costs go in, and so I think [Keyon tuition is] a discount.” Instructional services, which include faculty salaries and research support, are Kenyon’s second largest expense, coming in at 22.1 percent, behind financial aid at 22.2.

But some think that money could be better spent, or at least better distributed. Brandy Arredondo ’14, an anthropology major, described the department as “deprived.” “We don’t have a ramp for [the] handicapped,” Arredondo said of Palme House. “So no one who can’t climb up stairs can do anthropology classes.”

During her three years on the track and cross country teams, Arredondo noticed similar shortfalls. “It was really frustrating where the money was going,” she said. “There were points where all we could afford was an egg and coffee, because that’s all [the meal budget per person of] seven dollars got you at IHOP. After you’ve run a race, that’s not enough food.”

Dean of Students Hank Toutain, meanwhile, cited the presence of College-subsidized amenities as a kind of discount. “The Faculty Lectureships Committee brings so-and-so to campus, everybody goes and [community members] don’t pay a dime,” Toutain said. “Sometimes it’s a considerable amount of money. … Increasingly, I think [the College is asking]: can we measure, can we assess, can we tell how valuable something is … because if it isn’t working, we should stop doing it.”

Tuition has increased $2,080 from last year alone. In fact, according to Burson, there has never in Kenyon history been a decrease in the cost of tuition from one year to the next. While this is not unusual, ways do exist to bring down the cost of tuition, or at least slow the annual increase.

Iowa’s Grinnell College, for example, expanded its endowment to $1.55 billion through strategic stock market moves. Tuition at Grinnell was $56,920 for 2012-13, but 89 percent of the student body received need-based financial aid, as opposed to about 42 percent of Kenyon students who receive aid. .

Klesner, Daugherty and Burson all pointed to Kenyon’s relatively small endowment — $184.8 million dollars — as a major weakness. “We really need to build [Kenyon’s] endowment, because the bigger the endowment the more payoff from the endowment, the more support to the operating budget, the less you have to charge students,” Burson said, predicting that the endowment issue is one students will continue hearing about long after they graduate. For the foreseeable future, Kenyon will remain more dependant on yearly revenue than dividends from the endowment.

Taking Kenyon’s cost into account, students must decide whether investing in Kenyon is worth it. For Daniel Akuma ’14, it definitely has been. “They say no good thing comes easy,” Akuma said. “If I got it all for free that would be great, my parents would love it, but I don’t know if I would appreciate this education as much as I do right now.”

Arredondo considers the investment worthwhile, but said she wishes that the new summer scholars program for social sciences had been created earlier. “I think I get the most out of what I paid for,” Arredondo said. “But it’s clear that other people might not have. I lucked out, and that’s just how it happens.”

Burson described the “Kenyon experience” as, in a sense, unquantifiable. “When you meet your faculty member in the evening walking down Middle Path and you have an hour impromptu discussion … those are things that just don’t happen in many other colleges,” Burson said. “I don’t want to say they’re priceless, but there’s a value to that.”

The College’s favorable position in the market also contributes to the quality of the product it offers. “[A discount] certainly exists because of the overall financial model that we’re working with,” Toutain said. “There’s a discount for everybody. I think maybe another question or a different question is, how valuable are certain things? And maybe that’s a question that would be worth asking across the board.”

Madeleine Thompson

Editor-in-Chief Emerita at The Kenyon Collegian
Madeleine, class of 2015, was a political science major from Atlanta, and worked for the Collegian since freshman year, serving as editor-in-chief her senior year. She likes bagels and watching CSPAN.

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