Pressing $50,000

Why Whitman’s tuition is so high, and why it’s getting higher.

Andrew Schwartz, News Editor

Last March, Whitman president Kathy Murray announced that the school would, yet again, raise tuition for the upcoming year. This is standard practice among private liberal arts institutions like Whitman, and in higher education generally. Inflation churns, wages rise and the school develops; expanding into new arenas and deepening current programs. Most years, Whitman raises tuition between 3 and 7 percent. The school’s budget–roughly $84 million this school year–rises at a comparable rate. 

In 1996, you could get a Whitman education for $18,650 a year (all tuition numbers in this article account for tuition only, not room and board expenses or the Associated Students of Whitman College fee), or roughly $28,533 in September of 2016, according to inflation numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Tuition for the 2016-2017 school year, on the other hand, was $47,490, and it will be $49,390 for the 2017-2018 school year. The rise of tuition far beyond that of inflation is a well documented phenomena in higher education. But what accounts for these shifts at Whitman in particular?

Whitman CFO and Vice President of Finances Peter Harvey [’84] says that, to begin with, considering Whitman tuition in terms of inflation is misleading for a number of reasons.  

“There’s no one single answer, but first of all, if you compare a education institution to a for-profit business, for-profit business grow their volume–produce more widgets, if you will–every year as a way to generate more revenue, as a way to help keep cost-per-widget down,” Harvey said. “Education, we don’t do that. We keep our size roughly the same because we believe the critical nature of our education is similar sized classes and hands-on personal service. We don’t outsource the classroom experience to a contractor, nor frankly, do it online. There are colleges that do that and that’s fine for certain types of knowledge acquisition if you’re just memorizing things, but for what we’re trying to teach–critical thinking, communications skills, inquiry–it doesn’t work.”

Harvey added that Whitman’s big driver is paying people, not products, meaning the school’s finances are subject to financial forces that inflation alone won’t account for. In general, American wages have risen in the last 20 years beyond the rate of inflation, but not by enough to totally account for tuition increases. Harvey stressed that Whitman makes a point of offering regular raises to retain and attract good people.

And then there’s the argument that Whitman is simply a better product then it was in say, 1996. Better facilities, more programs, etc.

Harvey cited the climbing wall–a roughly $500,000 capital expense–as a prime example of the sort of thinking for which Whitman’s budget is criticized.

“A lot of people would say that’s case number one of the arms race and frivolous spending,” Harvey said. “I don’t think it is. I thought it really connected with the Whitman student body.”

He continued that the “critical thinking that went into assessing whether to put that into Sherwood Center was, ‘We’re in the Pacific Northwest, it takes advantage of the interests of our students and it’ll make us competitive in recruiting and retaining students. Plus it’s a good healthy activity to develop the whole student, and it creates leadership opportunities.’”

Every year, the President’s budget advisory committee, chaired by Harvey and composed of students faculty and staff, convenes to recommend a budget to the official Board of Trustees budget committee, composed mainly of trustees and overseers.

Mitchell Cutter, ASWC Finance Chair, who manages ASWC’s budget of over $500,000, sits on both committees. Not surprisingly, he said the role of ASWC and the role of student representatives on these committees tends to be “let’s not radically raise tuition.” He anticipated a three way struggle between raising tuition and salary pools for staff and faculty, but “at times,” he said, “the staff were actually more against raising the tuition that we have then the students were … From my perspective, I saw the necessity of raising tuition in the way we did, and there were ideas of raising it higher than we did, and I pushed against that, but the staff [did] even more.”

According to Director of Institutional Research Neal Christopherson, Whitman doled out over $25 million in financial aid this school year. This number,which tends to increase with rising tuition, is composed of roughly 82 percent need-based aid. Total aid tends to be around 36 percent of tuition itself, meaning that the average student paid around $30,000 this year in tuition. According to the official budget, this year’s net tuition, $46 million, covered roughly 60 percent of the school’s expenses, and the endowment that grew significantly under the presidency of George Bridges, covered the majority of the rest of the school’s expenses.

Whitman’s budget is, of course, a balancing act. Everyone wants something for their department and salaries are always increasing. New issues, like under-enrollment or minimum wage increases, emerge. The Physical Plant budget alone has increased over 55 percent since 2008, last year pushing over $9 million. Instructional Spending, that mostly comprises faculty salaries, has risen 40 percent in the same span. The school is currently pushing to get its faculty-to-student ratio up, but the proposed elimination of tenure-track positions is making waves.

“We stop doing things, we get a lot of complaints, especially from students,” Harvey said. “We’ve stopped things over the years, and people don’t like it. There’s always 5 or 10 percent of the student body that’s actively benefiting from anything we do at least. And even if it’s only 5 or 10 percent, it’s important to them, and they’re paying their $45,000 in tuition … There’s more pressure to add things and improve things than there is to become more lean.”

The Louis C.K. stand-up comedy story about the man cursing with righteous anger upon learning that the newly-installed airplane WI-FI temporarily broke down exemplifies the psychology at work that makes the the collegiate arms race so potent. Cutter and Harvey both refrained to the need for Whitman to remain competitive, and this largely involves constantly comparing itself to other schools.

Cutter said he has “some philosophical issues” with the comparative arms race logic that is at work. “I think that the liberal arts are going to reach a decision point at which that sort of structure is no longer possible. But in the meantime … in order to stay competitive … without undertaking a big philosophical shift, I am appreciative of the reality.”