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Tuition rise hurts financial sustainability

Kenyon College is spending its money in a way that almost guarantees the school as we know it will cease to exist. What’s worse is that in the meantime, they’re making you pay extra for a bunch of stuff they don’t need and you can’t afford.

One in five Kenyon students comes from a family earning the top 1 percent of incomes, said The New York Times study last week. While seeing that number in black and white is jarring, I think it confirms a feeling that’s been present among the students for quite a while now. Kenyon tends to admit kids from families who can pay 100 percent of their tuition and then still have money left over for a donation to whatever is being built this year.

It doesn’t have to be this way. But Kenyon’s current financial attitude being entirely dependent on student tuition will not only keep this problem in place, it will worsen the issue and eventually cripple the school’s culture and diversity beyond recognition.

Colleges have three options when it comes to raising money they need. They can ask people for it (donations), they can get it from the students (tuition) and they can get it from their investments (endowment).

Ideally, a college wants as much of their money coming from the endowment as possible. With a big endowment, they can invest a lot of money and ideally, make a lot of money which they can then spend.

Kenyon College is cursed with an endowment that hovers around $200 million. This sounds like a lot of money. But when stacked against that of other schools roughly our size, we’re way, way behind. Denison’s endowment is at roughly four times ours, and  and Grinnell’s is nine times larger. And those are just “comparable” schools. Harvard’s is 178 times larger, give or take a few hundred million dollars. Larger endowments mean more money gets put toward things like financial aid, tuition and upkeep on the school. Smaller endowments mean this isn’t really an option.

But Kenyon obviously still needs money. To get this money, Kenyon goes to the other two options: donations and tuition. As an alum, I receive almost daily emails about why I should donate to the Kenyon fund, and you will too once you graduate. But what should worry you more is the second component.

By the administration’s own estimates, tuition is expected to increase 3-4 percent over the next several years. Assuming you split the difference and predict 3.5 percent increases each year, the $50,000 tuition we have now will become $70,000 in ten years or so. In 30 years, that’ll be $140,000 a year.

Even in the near term, a 3-4 percent annual tuition increase means adding at least a couple grand to the bill of each current family every year. This simply isn’t a fair strategy to the families who are making daily budget decisions to send their kids here. Even if you’re lucky enough to come from a family that doesn’t know what a FAFSA is, there’s still no reason you should be happy about your college nonchalantly asking you to cough up a few thousand extra.

But even if you’re someone who’s comfortable with a six-figure tuition, a tuition-dependent Kenyon still has intense downsides. A reliance on tuition means a continuous demand to attract more students. Get used to crowded dorms and long Peirce lines. Students will also increasingly be chosen on how much of their tuition bill they can pay, rather than their academic merit, which means you’re going to be surrounded by stupid people for your four years here. Because of the terrible correlations between ethnicity and economic status in the US, racial diversity will also fall from the student body as the price tag increases.

Tuition dependance means that Kenyon’s financial future becomes dependent on students’ ability to cough up more and more money. This isn’t sustainable. Over time, it dooms Kenyon to becoming a sort of “country club college” that only caters to the extremely wealthy. That’s not the Kenyon any of us applied for, or want to see. That’s not the Kenyon the professors I admire want to teach at. And if the school loses the character that has caused generation after generation of kids to freeze their asses off in rural Ohio in the name of a unique education, students and alumni donors aren’t going to want to spend the money to keep Kenyon going.

The solution to the unsustainable tuition increases would be to grow the endowment, funneling extra money into it whenever possible, and begin to pay for Kenyon’s operating costs from sources other than students and donors.

Naturally, this is the exact opposite of what Kenyon is doing. A November 3, 2016 Collegian article reported that Kenyon’s endowment has, in fact, shrunk by 0.1% in 2015. Recent years have been a tough economic climate for investors at institutions such as Kenyon. Other schools can afford the loss of a few million or so. We can’t.

Continuing to increase tuition and spend said money on construction, while investing virtually none of it, is far more about attracting new students than taking care of the ones who are already on campus. Investing in a new library or gym might get new students to campus. But professors, AVI workers, counselors and nurses who look after those students all deserve an endowment that can pay them what they deserve. And new positions needed to tackle issues like sexual assault or Title 9 policy review require endowed money to ensure that they flourish.

The solution to this problem needs to come from both current students and alumni. If you’re on campus right now, please, tell the administration that you’d prefer a stable, well-funded Kenyon over more shiny new buildings. If you’re an alum, give what you can, but earmark your donations toward the endowment—or, if you’ve got enough paper for Kenyon to take you seriously, make your donations contingent on a strategy for endowment growth. It’s time for Kenyon to stop charging us for a strategy that will make the school unrecognizable at best.

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