Editorial: Grandfather us in

How to adjust CWRU tuition standards to be more equitable and transparent

Editorial Board

Every year, around February or March, a dedicated Observer news columnist writes an article about tuition costs. Since at least 2012, these headlines have read something like, “Provost updates students on tuition increase,” or “Tuition increases to be announced at Provost forum.” It doesn’t take long to see the overarching theme: tuition increases. This is not a phenomenon confined to Case Western Reserve University. Tuition costs have tripled in the past 20 years, increasing by over $20,000 on average for private universities since 1970—an increase that cannot simply be attributed to inflation. 

Last year, for instance, Observer news reporter Anna Giubileo reported that 2020-2021 tuition would again increase—this time by 3.96%—in part to improve “demands in health care.” At the Town Hall announcement last year, Director of University Health and Counseling Services (UHCS) Dr. Sara Lee emphasized that demand for counseling services had increased over the past several years, which could be addressed by increasing tuition. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen UHCS’ services sufficiently improve this year, especially given the pandemic’s impacts on mental health issues for many students and families across the U.S. While we commend UHCS for investing in CWRU Care—the free online counseling service available to students around the world—it should not replace initiatives to hire more full-time UHCS counselors with diverse backgrounds. 

However, this is again not a unique trend. Every year, we see our tuition increase by thousands of dollars and hear a myriad of explanations. But rarely do we receive follow-up information about how our money was actually spent. Tuition costs are one major area where the administration would do well to improve transparency.

As a private university, CWRU has its perks. From an administrative standpoint, we are awarded much more leeway in making decisions about what can and cannot happen at the university. Hopefully we will see an example of this in the coming weeks with a vaccine mandate. Unfortunately, from the student perspective, it can often mean less accountability. We aren’t guaranteed file information disclosure from requests to see where and how our money is being spent like state universities are. 

As such, while CWRU is under no obligation to disclose information about our university financials, they should nevertheless consider voluntary disclosure in efforts to increase transparency and accountability between administrators, staff, faculty and students. Namely, students would like to see the breakdown of our tuition—how exactly is the money spent? When tuition increases are earmarked for specific projects, are the extra tens of thousands actually going toward those initiatives? Quite frankly, we should ask ourselves why this is not already public information—or at least accessible to members of the university paying to support the institution. 

On the way to disclosing a full breakdown of tuition costs, the administration should also consider having an easily accessible page on their website covering how tuition and room and board costs have changed—increased—over the past few years. This would allow prospective families to plan for expected increases over their four years at CWRU. As it stands, the only information publicly available on the website is information about the current or upcoming year costs. We had to review past Observer articles and use our personal SIS accounts to find the tuition costs of previous years. The university directed us to review each academic year’s operating budget as the official documentation of the prices—is there really no public documentation of the tuition over the last five years unless you sift through a series of 40-page documents, happen to come across a powerpoint presentation given by the provost, or rely on third-party websites like College Tuition Compare

However, there’s another alternative—or maybe a supplemental one. Perhaps students and families shouldn’t have to automatically expect tuition to increase by 1% to 4% every year. We shouldn’t have to be concerned every year that tuition prices are increasing while our financial aid packages stay about the same. Instead, CWRU could introduce a grandfather clause. 

If the university introduced a grandfather clause, CWRU could still increase tuition prices each year, but the increase would only affect the incoming class. For example, the tuition price for the 2018-2019 academic year was $24,302 per semester. The students who started in fall 2018 are now finishing their third year, paying $26,224 per semester. This means annual tuition has increased nearly $4,000 over three years—a sizable increase for even middle-class families. With a grandfather clause, these students could have known, upon matriculating at CWRU, that (without scholarships and grants) they would be expected to pay $24,302 every semester for the next four years. If deemed financially necessary, CWRU could then have increased the cost of tuition for the next class which started in fall 2019, but then that price would be fixed for their subsequent semesters. 

This grandfather clause could reduce the unknown and variability of tuition increases each year. Students with scholarships—the majority of students at CWRU—wouldn’t have to fear that the impact of their grants will diminish as the tuition continues to increase. Without this clause, students or families are left to make up the additional costs each year. This means more part- or full-time jobs for students, which will limit time spent on academics, extracurriculars or just participating in the social college life. 

CWRU does a relatively good job of making a prestigious private institution accessible to, at least, middle-income students and some lower-income students through scholarships and grants. However, financial aid is not the only way to make higher education accessible. Any of the above suggestions would increase transparency around the price of college. If CWRU is particularly passionate about lowering the barriers of entry for universities, we could take the grandfather clause to another level with a full tuition freeze. 

Purdue University is the most notable college which has pledged—and followed through—to keep tuition prices steady over time. Since 2012, their tuition has remained constant while other schools, including CWRU, continue to increase costs. This has not only made their university more attractive to prospective students, but it also lowers the financial burdens facing students while attending school and after graduation. However, we can also learn from schools geographically closer to CWRU. The University of Cincinnati adopted a grandfather clause to freeze tuition prices for each class. Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio adopted a freeze in response to the pandemic. While they are of course feeling the financial burden of having fewer students living on campus, they recognize the pandemic has also placed a sizable burden on those students and families. As such, they cancelled a proposed 3% tuition increase, promising to freeze tuition for at least the next academic school year. 

Time will tell what we learn from this pandemic—and the end may be in sight as we continue to push vaccination campaigns. While we will hopefully promote stronger public health infrastructure after COVID-19 subsides, we can also consider improving other public programs. CWRU could choose to join Purdue and Ohio Wesleyan as a leader in higher education by increasing tuition transparency and freezing costs—at the very least, for each class.