According to U.S. News and World Reports, Kenyon is the United States’ most expensive college. The Board of Trustees’ decision to raise costs to $83,740 next year guarantees that Kenyon will retain that title through its bicentennial.
The College now runs the risk of being known more as an example of higher education’s spiraling costs than for its many academic achievements. Fixing this problem will require seeking answers to many questions, some of which, I suggest, include the following:
What drives Kenyon’s ever-increasing costs? The trustees report the endowment is robust and growing. All other colleges and universities are prospering while charging less than Kenyon. What makes Kenyon’s case different?
Is the course the trustees are pursuing viable? The number of U.S. college-age students is declining while wealth in the country is concentrated in ever fewer hands. How do the trustees imagine that they can continue enrolling more students while increasing costs?
How can the trustees promote diversity, equity and inclusion when the costs of attending Kenyon for students on financial aid in the lowest income group have gone up over 431% since 2013, according to “Brackett’s Path”? There are many ways of measuring diversity, but the financial obstacles to achieving any of them at Kenyon are formidable.
How has the money generated by increasing tuition and fees been used to address long-standing problems that students face such as mold, radon, long waits at the Health Center and adequate support for those suffering from sexual assaults? How do the trustees rationalize enrolling more students without increasing the staff who are crucial to addressing these and other very real student needs?
What does Kenyon offer students that warrants its great cost? The education provided here is first-rate, but this was the case long before Kenyon became the country’s most expensive college.
Quality learning is going on in many colleges, most of which seemingly provide greater boosts to their students’ future prospects. The New York Times reported in 2017 that the College’s mobility index (the likelihood that a student will move up at least two income quintiles in their life) ranked 61st out of the 64 elite colleges in the sample. In what ways do the trustees think that they are creating a Kenyon that is uniquely valuable to students?
What is Kenyon’s culture and who defines it? Kenyon’s culture used to be defined by people working together to make a community. Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies Don Rogan’s 1998 Honors Day address made this point by highlighting how students shaped life on campus through the organizations they created. Students, staff and faculty exemplified that culture by acting together to stop the trustees’ outsourcing Kenyon’s Maintenance Department to SODEXO in 2012-13. Student efforts to build community by standing up for each other continue in the form of peer counselors, SRPA and K-SWOC, but are vehemently opposed by the trustees. Do the trustees alone want to define Kenyon’s culture, to decide what the Kenyon experience is? If so, is that reasonable and does it yield a culture worth $83,740 a year?
For whom does Kenyon exist? Are the trustees using student tuitions to realize a vision of the College that is out of step with Kenyon’s needs? How are problems students experience with obtaining adequate health care, receiving academic and physical accommodations, gaining access to classes and making enough from student jobs to afford to stay here being addressed by raising their costs? Are the increasing pressures on faculty and staff occasioned by growing the student body without adequate support for those front-line workers warranted? What goal do the trustees seek, and how do they rationalize its human and financial costs?
I strongly suggest that including all members of the community in conversations on these issues serves the common good. Institutions are what their members do together. An organization’s future, therefore, is best defined when its members, with their different skills and perspectives, talk and act together.
J.K. Smail Professor of Anthropology (emeritus)