Per the U.S. News & World Report, Kenyon is the most expensive private college in the country for the 2022-23 academic year as measured by tuition and fees. When I wrote last year that I wanted to see Kenyon at the top of the national college rankings, this isn’t what I had in mind.
The Board of Trustees announced a tuition increase last spring, and despite some groans and complaints, the community at large didn’t put up much resistance. But in light of President Joe Biden’s decision to cancel individual student loan debt up to $10,000, there has been a renewed mainstream discourse about the affordability and accessibility of college. Thus, now seems like a good time to examine why Kenyon is so expensive, how it could prove unsustainable in the long run and measures that could be taken to contain costs going forward.
On its face, it’s rather baffling that Kenyon is the most expensive college in the country. The cost of living and property values are much lower in rural Ohio than in most places. And, no, I’m not suggesting slashing employee salaries — anyone who spent six years earning their Ph.D. to then make $69,000 a year as untenured faculty is hardly making out like a bandit. By the way, Kenyon is not atop the list in terms of professor pay even compared to other liberal arts colleges.
So, where is the money going? For those who are interested, Kenyon’s consolidated financial report for 2021 can be found on Kenyon’s website. (Hint: Look at construction costs and administrative expenses, and how Kenyon’s endowment has performed versus that of comparable institutions.) Let’s save the forensic accounting for another day, but at the very least there are some clear signs of inefficient and wasteful spending. This begs the question of who should be held accountable, and why this is such a non-pressing issue for the Kenyon community.
Historically, the Board of Trustees and the administration have deflected blame for tuition hikes by claiming that most students don’t pay full-price, as a majority receive financial aid. We’ve probably all heard iterations of this before. Last year, Vice President for Finance Todd Burson told the Collegian that the lion’s share of the budget is spent on financial aid and payroll. Something that we often fail to consider is that families that pay the full price subsidize those who aren’t able to. Assuming upper-income families have some price above which they would be unwilling to pay for a Kenyon education — in my opinion, a pretty reasonable assumption — then at a certain point Kenyon’s sticker price will drive away full-paying students, and with it lose the ability to provide financial aid for everyone else. In essence, we all stand to benefit from Kenyon keeping costs low. It is also worth noting that even for families receiving aid, financing four years at Kenyon can be an incredible burden. As of 2021, the average net price after financial aid was almost $39,000 per school year — hardly a trivial amount, despite being less than half of the sticker price.
All this said, is there any way to contain rising costs rather than simply passing them onto students and their families? There certainly is. First and foremost, we should demand more say in how our tuition dollars are being spent and how money from donors and other revenue sources is being spent. Kenyon’s explanation of fees and charges leaves much to be desired. The hope is that more transparency will allow us to identify the underlying causes of rising prices, and from there the community can entertain a productive dialogue on how funds should and should not be appropriated.
Money talks. If the Board of Trustees and the administration are uninterested in making changes, maybe they will care when prospective students — and their tuition dollars — flock to Oberlin.
Milo Levine ’23 is a columnist for the Collegian. He is an economics major from Mill Valley, Calif. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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1. Great article, I look forward to your deeper dive on these financial reports and the overall costs of higher education in general. Current path isn't sustainable.
2. I am going to assume that the cost of the new south campus buildings under construction is going to be significantly higher than anticipated. A lot of people were predicting inflation and interest rate hikes in 2022, the supply chain and labor markets were already compromised, and many ignored this advice. These buildings could end up being a fascinating case study of the building market under dramatic market fluctuations, supply chain constraints, energy spiking, labor shortages and trade retirements. Unless Kenyon locked in pricing, every single metric associated with building except maybe lumber has gone significantly up since the initial genesis of the project. And a modern dorm probably wouldn't even use that much lumber anyways. What was the initial estimate? What was the final cost? It could be astronomically more expensive than the initial bid. Help us understand.
3. Finally, looking to Oberlin isn't a great idea. Oberlin is currently paying out 40 million in insurance money after losing in court after a failed attempt to "cancel" a local business under false pretenses. Their (faculty/student) "court of public opinion cult" looked like a "social media mob with bad information", and the judge ruled it that way. So, now, in what looks to be an attempt to save face, Oberlin recently offered every student a 10k scholarship for 2023. Tempting, sure, but this looks and feels like paying students not to look at the financial disaster in the rear-view mirror, and also an attempt to "signal" at students that they are not paying for the lawsuit verdict. This waste of insurance forty million will have a direct impact on future tuition rates and will be passed on to every college and student in the long run.
Reply to K Alum
Over years Kenyon has added numerous “studies” programs and faculty as well as programs and staff advancing social and/or partisan agendas. The debate 30 years ago was to avoid adding expensive and largely partisan programs and at the same time for Kenyon to not add business majors, For Kenyon to focus on the core liberal arts and sciences. These programs have a significant financial cost and change the character of the college. One can read articles as to the lack of political diversity at Kenyon and in gambier.
Reply to Pacerdhs