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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Affordability and the Budget, Part 3: Budget transparency and the push for need-blind admissions

Junior Amira al-Subaey, a member of Tufts Student Action, poses for a portrait in Mayer Campus Center on Apr. 9, 2018.

This is part three in a four-part series from the Daily's Investigative Team.

As the university's deficit persists and spending increases, students have become increasingly frustrated at the university's lack of budget transparency. Elizabeth Dossett, a junior and a member of Tufts Student Action (TSA), said that if Tufts is using the deficit as an excuse not to meet student needs, then they must explain how the they got into a deficit in the first place.

“If the university is so crippled by this deficit to make these decisions then they need to share how they got into the deficit, why the deficit is persisting, what they are doing to offset the deficit, all of these things which no one knows,” Dossett said.

One student-directed attempt at budget transparency was a town hall organized by TCU Senate Vice President Anna Del Castillo and Administration & Policy Committee Chair Jamie Neikrie, where administrators and students shared their perspectives on tuition increases. In the Daily's coverage of the event, Neikrie expressed hopes that this town hall would spark an administrative effort to increase budget transparency.

“I’m hoping that this is the beginning of a more collaborative process, where the university feels like it can arrange these town halls or arrange dialogues when there is an issue on campus," Neikrie, a senior, said.

However, Ava Ciosek, a TSA member, felt that the town hall was another instance of the administration failing to address concerns about transparency and tuition hikes in general.

“I think that there’s an apathy towards students,” Ciosek, a first-year, said.

TSA member and junior Amira Al-Subaey noted one area where there needs to be more transparency is the Board of Trustees, since, according to Board Chairman Peter Dolan, the Board sets tuition and plans the increases every year.

“Students [could be] invited to trustee meetings, or trustees [could] have office hours like administrators do where students can meet with them and talk about their concerns," she said. "The level of accessibility we have to the board of trustees now is so low that anything would be an improvement."

The Board of Trustees projects tuition increases up to three years in advance

A central demand of the #HaltTheHike campaign is for information regarding tuition hikes and the budget to be made publicly available. According to Executive Vice President Patricia Campbell and Vice President of Finance and Treasurer Tom McGurty, the Board of Trustees projects what future tuition will be ahead of time — up to three years in advance.

“The University prepares a three year operating budget containing estimates of all University revenues and expenses. For each revenue and expense item the budget contains a significant number of assumptions that would include enrollment levels, tuition rates and financial aid funding,” Campbell and McGurty wrote in an email to the Daily.

When asked about the accuracy of these projections, McGurty and Campbell explained that they are only as accurate as the underlying assumptions made.

“The principal focus is on the next fiscal year while out-year estimates are subject to greater uncertainty and change … [the projections] are only as accurate as the underlying assumptions, which reflect a significant number of variables. This is why they are considered directional only and subject to change,” they wrote.

These projections could be valuable in helping students plan financially. While the three-year projection is presented to the Board of Trustees, according to Campbell and McGurty, they only approve the plan for one year and do not publicize the details of the three-year plan.

According to Campbell and McGurty, these plans are not publicized to students because they are subject to change.

“As the major source of revenue, we expect tuition charges to continue to change as expenses described above rise or as other sources of revenue change, either through increases or decreases,” they wrote.

Tuition has never decreased in Tufts’ recent history, and the average increase since 2010, according to Tufts’ audited financial statements, is 3.69 percent.

While these projected increases may be subject to change, language in the audited statements suggests at least part of these projections are accurately planned. According to 2017 Annual Financial Report, “gross tuition and fees increased 6.3% to $526 million due to planned rate increases and an increased enrollment of 192 students.”

Even though the university considers these projections to be guiding rather than definite, their existence means that the university knows three years in advance that tuition will increase. This means that the university was not likely to entertain TSA’s demands to halt tuition hikes.

Al-Subaey expressed her frustration that students were not made aware of the existence of these projections and said that increased student input is needed. 

“I think that’s why the inaccessibility of the Tufts Board is so concerning because this realistically could be happening, it could have been happening for the past ten to fifteen years, and students could still be unaware of it," she said. "It just seems to be really backwards to have an institution that is centered around students and have no student input around the budget or tuition at all."

When asked about tuition projections and why the Board of Trustees does not offer more information to students, Dolan explained the ways different ways students can currently access the Board, including through the Trustee Representatives and that students are welcome to visit or contact the Trustees Office.

“The Board of Trustees is always interested in hearing students’ thoughts, concerns and proposals, and there are a number of existing ways in which students can raise issues to the attention of the board," Dolan wrote in an email to the Daily. "Student representatives sit on the board’s committees on Academic Affairs, Administration and Finance, and University Advancement … issues also can be brought to the attention of the board through the university’s administration, which happens frequently. And community members can always write, call, or visit the Trustees Office."

Need-aware admissions: evidence of socioeconomic discrimination?

Tufts currently has a need-aware admissions policy. As reported by Time, the most basic definition of a need-aware admissions process is that a student’s ability to pay is a factor when making admissions decisions. According to Assistant Professor of Sociology Freeden Blume Oeur, this makes it more difficult for low-income students to get into Tufts.

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Karen Richardson said that socioeconomic status does not come up when applications are first reviewed. However, Richardson also said that a student’s socioeconomic status becomes an influential factor in whether the student is admitted in the final steps of the admissions process.

“When we are finalizing the class, however, because we have finite resources for financial aid, we have to stay within that budget. It means that we do have to make some tough decisions, but, as best we can, we try to ensure that students who will be good fits for Tufts — no matter what their financial need may be — will be given the opportunity to attend,” Richardson told the Daily in an email.

Alumnus and former trustee representative Sylvia Ofoma (A '17) worked in the admissions office while attending Tufts. She describes this process as a "balancing of the budget," as the university must figure out how to maximize socioeconomic diversity without expending all of their financial aid resources.

It’s kind of a balancing of budget in terms of socioeconomic diversity. You have these kids who can pay in full, you have a certain amount of kids who need more, you have a certain amount of financial aid available,” Ofoma said.

In a Somerville Neighborhood News special report published by senior Nathan Foster and junior Celeste Teng earlier this year, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences James Glaser said that this budgeting process is better than its alternative: offering smaller financial aid packages. Tufts would rather meet 100 percent of demonstrated need for a smaller number of students than only some demonstrated need for a larger number of students.

“A little bit [of budgeting] happens there at the end, it’s too bad, I wish we didn’t have to do it," Glaser said, noting that at the end of the admissions process, they may have to prioritize students who can pay full tuition. "I think it is preferable to do that than to do what many of our peer institutions do which is simply to lower the aid offers."

Del Castillo, a senior, said that she appreciates Tufts efforts to meet 100 percent of admitted students' demonstrated need, but that it’s demoralizing to know that as a low-income student, her application could have been rejected in the final process based on her ability to pay.

“I think that increasing financial aid should be one of the school’s main priorities. I’m a very low-income student myself, and it’s upsetting to know that my application may not have been considered in the same way as my peers’ applications,” Del Castillo said.

This need-aware policy may not be the only way Tufts’ admissions process inherently discriminates based on socioeconomic status. Richardson told the Daily that she expected half of Tufts’ class of 2022 to be admitted through Early Decision in a March Daily article. Early decision often attracts wealthier applicants, as they must commit to a school before knowing their financial aid package. 

According to Richardson, Tufts briefly pursued a need-blind admissions policy, or one where a student’s financial need is not a factor in admissions decisions, in 2007. However, the policy was only made possible due to a gift from a donor who specified it should be used for that purpose and had to be discontinued once the money ran out.

“Tufts ... had to discontinue the practice in 2009 after the funds from a large, finite gift were exhausted. We aspire to a need blind policy but it would require significantly more financial aid each year than currently available,” Richardson wrote.

Campbell and McGurty said that they don’t see a need-blind policy as feasible.

Being a need-blind institution would require a significant infusion of financial aid annually. We don’t currently see that as being feasible,” they wrote in an email to the Daily.

How does financial aid at Tufts compare to its peer institutions?

Compared to its peer institutions, Tufts has the smallest number of students receiving university grant money as financial aid, according to data from Foster, who is also a trustee representative. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 36 percent of Tufts students receive financial aid in the form of grants or scholarships from Tufts, compared to 42 percent of Georgetown students and 53 percent of Columbia students.

This data reflects the school’s overall lack of socioeconomic diversity. Tufts’ Office of Institutional Research and Evaluation (OIRE) recently published statistics detailing the number of students from each economic quintile in each class, indicating that only 3.6 percent of students in Class of 2021 were in the 20th percentile and applied for financial aid. 

This imbalance is more apparent when the amount of students from the 1 percent is compared to the amount of students from the bottom 60 percent. A New York Times article published last year showed that 18.6 percent of Tufts students are from families in the top one percent, while only 11.8 percent of students are from families in the bottom 60 percent.

The disparity between the high-income student population and the average to low-income student population is tangible, and students on financial aid like Ciosek say it can be ostracizing.

“I just know from experience that a lot of kids that I meet, entire friend groups, are in the one percent. I think that it is alienating and I’m not even an entirely low-income student, but I am on financial aid,” Ciosek said. “It is that feeling [of alienation] that never goes away. That you are thinking about those loans before you even graduate, or before you finish your first year.”

Who gets aid?

According to Nick Ducoff, the founder of Edmit, a company that helps students evaluate college as an investment, this imbalance is an example of how universities struggle to balance their democratic goals of admitting all students with earning revenue. The higher the income of a student's family, the more money the university will ultimately make through admitting them — and sometimes, this means enticing even higher-income applicants with small amounts of financial aid.

According to data from the OIRE, in 2017, 127 students from families in the top five percent of wealth earners in the U.S. and 149 students from the top 20 percent applied for financial aid. In addition, students from the top five percent who applied for aid paid about $4,000 less than the full cost of attendance on average, and those from the top 20 percent received an average discount of over $20,000. This reduced cost could be attributed to outside scholarships, but Ducoff said that it very well may be a result of university aid.

“Let’s say the university costs $40,000 a year has $10,000 in availability. They could use that $10,000 of profit— they could either pay one quarter of one person’s full ride, or they could attract a student paying $30,000 a year, giving them $120,000 over four years,” Ducoff said. “The decision here is generally using the $10,000 to attract a student paying $30,000, the harder part of this decision is finding a way to come up with more ways to fund a full ride.”

Blume Oeur said this imbalance is another example of where universities struggle to balance their goals of admitting every qualified applicant, regardless of their socioeconomic status, and their pragmatic need to earn revenue. Ultimately, because of this conflict, universities reflect the larger, detrimental social patterns that exist in the United States and don’t do much to change them.

“I certainly don’t doubt the good intentions of a lot of people who are trying to balance the need to keep Tufts atop the perch of higher education with wanting to increase access. One of the first things you’ll learn in a sociology courses is that elite institutions have never really been accessible to students,” Blume Oeur said. “They are just the province of the most elite, they are just engines of social reproduction and not engines of social transformation.”