Whitman tuition increases, but near Panel of 14 average

Derek Thurber

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This article was updated at 9:04 p.m. on Sunday May 8, 2011

This article was co-authored by Rachel Alexander.

Since the seniors graduating on May 22 first came to Whitman in 2007, the annual cost of attending Whitman has continued to increase steadily. Over the past four years, tuition has increased by 5,470 dollars, from 32,980 dollars in the 2007-2008 school year to 38,450 dollars this year.

Next year, incoming first-years will start their college education by paying an unprecedented 40,180 dollars in tuition.

According to Chief Financial Officer Peter Harvey, increases in tuition are the result of meeting the needs of the college in order to provide the best services to the students.

“Tuition is determined as part of [the budget process]. There’s no magical answer. We look at what the needs are, what our priorities are,” Harvey said. “How much we want to increase salaries and how much fringe benefits are going up are a big driver in the operating budget. And then we look at other requests for things like increased utilities : whether we need more computers or labs, more staff positions or faculty positions. And then we look at tuition and financial aid costs and try to come up with a balance.”

Whitman Controller Walter Froese further emphasized that the budget is never set before it is approved by the Budget Advisory Committee and the Board of Trustees. Setting tuition is part of this process, and both groups can provide input on any proposed raises.

“Sometimes, if it takes say a five percent increase [in tuition] to balance the budget, they may come back and say, ‘We think that’s too strong of an increase,’ and so you have to come back and cut spending,” Froese said. “It’s not simply we just jack tuition to what it takes to meet our needs.”

The 5,470-dollar increase in tuition over the past four years represents a 9.8 percent increase in tuition costs above the market inflation rate for those years, using calculations based on inflation rates as determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

By comparison, a decade ago, between 1997 and 2000, Whitman’s tuition rose by 1.6 percent above inflation for those years.

According to Harvey, the tuition increase over the past ten years can largely be attributed to two things. The first is faculty and staff salary increases, as well as rising benefit costs. Personnel costs account for about 60 percent of Whitman’s operating budget, and faculty and staff received moderate raises several years ago, before the market collapse in order  to keep their salaries competitive.

“The first couple years of those five years [between 2002-2007] when we were doing 7 percent tuition increases, we gave 6 percent salary pool [increases]” Harvey said. “That’s a big driver and those were larger increases than we typically do because we felt we were behind on competitive salaries for recruiting and retaining both faculty and staff.”

However, according to several unnamed faculty members, faculty and staff salary raises account for only a small percentage of Whitman’s tuition. Other factors, such as the tuition discount rate, have a more significant impact.

The tuition discount rate–the percentage of tuition used to pay for financial aid–has increased from 36 percent to 40 percent over the past five years. Harvey said the discount rate increase has been part of an effort to increase diversity at Whitman.

“We have intentionally tried to increase the number of students that are first-generation students and diversity students, and [those students] tend to have higher levels of need,” he said.

Junior Matt Dittrich, who is the current ASWC finance chair and a member of the Budget Advisory Committee, also emphasized the costs associated with necessary increases in financial aid.

“It is not a simple comparison between changing faculty rates and tuition,” Dittrich said. “It is no secret that for whatever reason recently accepted students have had high financial need and so financial aid has increased by a lot to meet that demand.”

For some parents of Whitman students, like Rich Roberts, this financial aid has made all the difference.

“As the father of two Whitman students, I am deeply grateful for the scholarship money [my kids] have been granted and equally concerned about the amount of debt that they will have to repay for the expenses that were not covered by the scholarships,” Roberts said. “The scholarship aid that my kids receive allow me to send them to Whitman … is it worth it? Yes, and more.”

Graduating is a growing concern shared by other college students and parents. The average debt of a student graduating from Whitman in 2009 was 17,955 dollars according to the U.S. News and World Report. However, Whitman remains competitive compared to similar schools in terms of average debt.

Whitman parent Leslie Farrar, who has seen large tuition increases and more dramatic cuts as an employee of Humboldt State University in California, believes that Whitman has done better than other schools at maintaining educational quality and financial aid during the economic downturn.

“I think that you will find if you dig deeper, that Whitman is doing well with the results of the recession,” she said.

Harvey also emphasized that Whitman is doing the best it can in difficult times to keep tuition costs down while maintaining Whitman’s reputation and does not believe Whitman is driven by market forces.

“We don’t have that kind of market presence to be able to [raise tuition based on market forces],” Harvey said.

Harvey further emphasized that Whitman keeps track of similar schools to make sure we remain competitive in terms of financial aid and tuition costs.

“We monitor other schools to make sure that our tuition and our financial aid policies are competitive,” Harvey said. “They don’t set our tuition but we monitor the marketplace just to make sure we’re competitive within it.”

According to Harvey, Whitman uses two groups of schools as benchmarks for tuition comparison. The first are liberal arts colleges which have the highest percentage of applicants in common with Whitman. The second is the Panel of 14, a group of similar liberal arts colleges which Whitman has been using to compare itself to for several decades.

Whitman’s current tuition rate places it as the seventh least expensive school, directly in the center of the Panel of 14. This is an improvement from 10 years ago, when Whitman had the ninth least expensive tuition. Relative to the Panel of 14, Whitman’s tuition has become more affordable over the past decade.

In terms of financial aid, Whitman is slightly below the Panel of 14 average for percentage of students receiving need-based aid. The mean for the panel is 53.8 percent, while Whitman provides need-based aid to 49 percent of students this year. These numbers do not take into account the amount of aid given to each student, only the overall percentage of student who receive aid.

Ultimately, Harvey emphasized that increases in tuition result in a direct impact on the quality of education provided to students.

“Frankly, if we were too significantly less expensive, it might mean that we’re not able to attract and retain the best faculty and do the best things like Semester in the West and many of the educational programs that we do,” Harvey said.

Most parents and students are inclined to agree.

“The bottom line is that we feel that a Whitman education is worth it,”  Farrar said. “Despite the personal sacrifices we have made to have this experience for our son, we would do it again.”

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