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The cost of attending Grinnell (aka exponential growth)

Topics/tags: Grinnell, academia, economics, disjoint, short

Today, my assistant and I were doing archival work in my office. We managed to make it through one box of old stuff from about 2006. I kept some stuff, but I got rid of much more than I normally would. I even threw away the one copy I had of a grant proposal that I spent much of a month writing [1].

As we were doing the archival work, we found a memo from President Osgood dated March 11, 2002, in which he explains the painful increase in the comprehensive fee. My assistant looked at that fee and said, That’s half of what Grinnell costs these days. And my assistant is right. Grinnell’s fee of $29,860 for 2002–2003 is less than half of the $65,202 that we are charging for 2018–19. My, that’s a terrifyingly large number.

How did we get so high? Let’s suppose that the increment was 5% each year [2]. Over sixteen years, the fee should have gone up by a factor of 1.05 to the 16th power. That’s 2.18 times as large. 2.18 * $29,860 is $65,094.

Ah, the wonders of exponential growth.

Postscript: Grinnell is generous with financial aid, so the vast majority of our students don’t pay anything close to sticker price. And I’m told that the average Grinnell student graduates with less debt than the average attendee at our state institutions.

Postscript: Russell’s memo says Among the top 25 rated U.S. News and World Report national schools, our comprehensive fee has consistently ranked in the lowest fifth. I wonder if that’s still the case.

Followup: A friend did the analysis. Of the schools in the top 25, only three have lower comprehensive fees than Grinnell: Soka U [3], West Point [4], and the U.S. Naval Academy [5]. The most expensive top-25 school, Harvey Mudd, costs about $10K more per year than Grinnell.

However, my friend also notes that sticker price is less meaningful than net price and student debt and, as I observed, we do pretty well on that front.

Postscript: As far as I can tell, college costs go up faster than inflation and inflation goes up faster than most people’s salaries. Both are problematic issues and are leading to a huge change in the affordability of college.

That’s leading to a very problematic situation. I don’t have a good solution to that problem.

[1] The proposal was to provide early research opportunities to students from groups traditionally underrepresented in CS. But it wasn’t funded. There’s no real reason for me to keep it.

[2] It was 5.5% leading into 2002–03. It was 3.3% leading into 2018–19.

[3] I’ve never heard of Soka U.

[4] Free.

[5] Also free.

Version 1.0 released 2018-09-10.

Version 1.1 of 2018-09-11.