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Should Grinnell be tuition free?

About a decade ago, we were in the midst of some serious discussions about strategic planning for the College. At the time, the endowment was significantly outperforming College expenses. As one faculty member said at the time At some point, instead of being a College with an endowment, we will become an endowment with a College [1]. And so, in the midst of strategic planning, someone suggested Why don’t we go tuition free?

It’s an interesting question, and one that I think we should revisit. probably needs some significant and careful modeling [4]. Even as we see the rate of increase of the endowment decrease, I still think it’s worth revisiting the question.

What did the proposer mean by tuition free? I’m not sure, and I can’t find the memos from the time [9]. There are lots of options. While there is no tuition, there could be charges for room and board (or we could make those free, too). Free could involve some expectations that students work. Free could involve an explicit expectation that graduates tithe back to the institution [10]. To achieve equity of access, I’d probably make tuition, room, and board free, but require that students work some number of hours per week [11] and that they agree to return some percentage of their income to the College.

What are the costs of going tuition free? Well, we already spend more per student than we charge even our full-pay students. In addition, if I recall correctly, the average financial aid award (given to something like 80% of our students) is about $45K toward an overall cost of $60K. So, while there’s a substantial difference between our current subsidies and the subsidies necessary for a tuition-free Grinnell, we already subsidize significantly.

How would we make up the difference? Well, in the short term, we would probably have to rely on increased donations from current Grinnell alums who would want to help make this equitable approach a reality [12] and by taking a greater percentage of the endowment [13]. I expect that Shane Jacobsen could model the former and Kate Walker could model the effects of the latter. Over the longer term, I’d hope that the tithing model would work. I’d also look at how Berea manages it.

Why choose a tuition-free Grinnell? I think it fits well with Grinnell’s core values of equitable access to education. It should let us more easily shape our entering classes. It will lead to some interesting challenges. How, for example, do we want to shape our campus? As Mark Montgomery noted, we could easily fill a tuition-free Grinnell with talented students from Eastern Europe [14], but that would not create a very diverse Grinnell. Should we only admit high-need students, or should we also admit high-income students? I think we would want to admit students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. And there are many more questions we could ask.

One of the great strengths of Grinnell is that we provide a top-notch liberal arts education to every student, irregardless of their ability to pay. I would hope that being tuition free would also allow us to reach students who would benefit from a Grinnell education, and could currently afford a Grinnell education, but do not currently apply because either (a) they’ve never heard of Grinnell or (b) they look at sticker price and don’t think that they could afford Grinnell.

What potential harms are there from going tuition free? Well, we could fail to bring in enough money to sustain the quality of programs we currently offer. I expect that there’s a reason that Grinnell is ranked significantly better than Berea, and that our tuition income helps us provide the things that set us apart: more resources for students, better pay for faculty [15], a wider variety of opportunities, and so on and so forth. Would we be able to maintain all of these strengths if we were tuition free? I don’t know.

I also wonder how being tuition-free would affect our reputation. It could improve things, as it is relatively novel [16]. But I think there’s some evidence that people place more value on the things that they pay for, so it might lead people to think less well of the school and its students.

I expect that the discussion of what the shape of the class should be would be challenging and difficult [17]. But sometimes challenging and difficult conversations are worth having.

Am I advocating strongly for a tuition free Grinnell? No, not particularly. I realize that there are significant risks, and some of the benefits are uncertain. However, as we think about long-term planning for the College with the changing demographics of the country and the world, and as we think about what makes Grinnell distinctive, I think it’s at least worth trying to model the effects.

[1] Yes, it’s an important distinction. I think the traditional metaphor is the tail wags the dog. We saw some effects; I was told that a few of the newer trustees seemed much more interested in thinking about the endowment than thinking about the College [2].

[2] It’s great that trustees think about the endowment; that’s part of their role. And it’s good that they don’t micromanage the College.
However, they should care about it. I was told these trustees didn’t really care about the College [3].

[3] What I was told may not represent reality.

[4] I’ll admit that I’d rather we spent the effort modeling the effects of going tuition free than of changing the size of the student body. As someone said to me recently, A ten-minute back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that it does not make financial sense to go to 2,000 students [5].

[5] Yes, there is a task force charged with modeling changes to the size of the student body. Going up to 2,000 students is one of the possible models, as is moving down to 1,500 students [6].

[6] I think we’re at about 1650 full-time students, with about 1500 on campus at any one point [7,8].

[7] The other 150 or so are primarily studying abroad.

[8] Jim Swartz always said If you ask me how many students we have, I’ll ask you to explain how you want me to count. As the previous note suggests, some of our students are off campus. We also have some students who are prison inmates. We have some high-school students who take classes at the College. We have some seniors who take classes at the College. We have some employees who take classes at the College. Which of those do you count?

[9] I did, however, find a rant from June of 2005 about our failure to compensate library faculty for participating in workshops and the irrationality of the so-called rationale. I ended my note with Neither X nor Y asked me to write. I write partially out of a sense of outrage and partially because I sincerely believe that if you tilt at enough windmills, eventually you start to win. I haven’t changed much, have I?

[10] I realize that tithing is typically 10% of income. I’m not sure what I’d fix as the percentage, or whether I need to use a different term if it’s not 10%.

[11] Eleven seems like a good number. However, that’s something that should be part of the modeling.

[12] Being tuition free should resonate with many of our alums’ sense of social justice, and the College’s tradition of being need-blind.

[13] Danger Will Robinson!

[14] That wasn’t quite what Mark said, but it’s close enough.

[15] Better pay for faculty makes it easier to recruit strong faculty.

[16] Or perhaps completely novel, given that we are a top-twenty institution.

[17] Is challenging and difficult redundant?

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-12-21.