Do We Cost Too Much? by Don Bowler '69

Forty years ago, when I was a student on The Bluff, tuition was $1,000 per year. Today my son Kyle’s tuition here is approximately $24,000 a year; the total package, with room and board, is about $34,000. Despite the fact that U.S. News & World Report rates the University as one of the best educational values in the West, this seems, to this fee-paying dad at least, astronomical. Is it?

     Actually, it’s a bargain. Notes:

     Many other people are helping your child. Revenue from tuition covers only 83% of operating costs. In other words, every student gets at least a 17% subsidy. The remaining revenue comes mostly from endowment interest and from gifts and grants to the University. The University would dearly love to get down to 70% of its revenue from tuition,
but that entails more and larger gifts for endowments and operations.

     Gifts and endowment earnings are also the sources of money for expansion and maintenance. Simply to offer what it does at present (more than 1,000 courses, 31 buildings, an economic impact on the Portland area of $125 million, an education ranked among the ten best in the West by U.S. News), the University spends $66 million annually. To build, as the University plans to, a new student recreation center, new residence halls, an engineering laboratory, or a new library, or to offer even more scholarships to talented students who are itching to attend, the University will need mighty generous help.

     A comprehensive education with professional programs and a focus on undergraduate research is more expensive than a traditional liberal arts education. “Smart” classrooms with computer terminals, modern science labs, online journals in every discipline, corporate internship programs, study abroad programs on three continents, graduate-level research and travel projects for undergraduates, science and engineering and nursing equipment... these are just some of the costs incurred by a university offering not only a liberal arts core curriculum but schools of business, education, engineering, and nursing, and a graduate school.

     The University moves heaven and earth to find scholarships for its students. The University’s practice for more than a century has been to admit qualified students regardless of their ability to pay. The total financial aid awarded to University students this year is nearly $60 million. More than 90 percent of the University’s 3,300 students receive some form of financial aid. All in all, the cost per student of providing an education on The Bluff is $5,500 more per student than the average tuition charged; so while costs seem expensive to parents like me, they don’t even cover the true need.

     Our greatest asset may be our faculty and staff. Forty-seven percent of the University’s annual operating budget — $30,003,000 — goes to faculty and staff salaries, paying for, among others, teachers who win state and national teaching honors and counselors who are there for broken hearts at three in the morning. That $30 million doesn’t even take into account the benefits for faculty and staff and their families. The average University employee is 44.5 years old and has been working here for more than 8 years. Finding, hiring, keeping, and supporting people who embrace the mission, who lend their talents to helping students find their best and truest and holiest selves, is a very good investment.

     The University’s employee benefit and utility costs are increasing rapidly. No surprise there for any parent; but those are crucial costs. Fourteen percent of the University’s budget, $8.8 million, goes to insurance and other staff benefits, and utility costs rise by thousands of dollars per year, despite the University’s commitment to energy conservation in such new structures as “energy-intelligent” Swindells Hall. The Uni­versity annually faces the choice of passing increased benefit costs to employees or not. To date it has assumed the bulk of additional costs for insurance coverage, in part to remain competitive for the best employees.

     Forty staffers contribute all their salaries to the Congregation of Holy Cross. These 40 men are the University’s Holy Cross priests and brothers, whose order has graced The Bluff for more than a century since their colleague Father John Zahm helped establish the University in 1901. They serve as president, vice president, provost, dean, professors, directors, counselors, and hall and ministry staff. Without them the University would be a very different entity, bereft of the Holy Cross’ insistence on teachable moments, days pregnant with holiness, and an education devoted to welding creativity to discipline on the road to epiphany and career and communal care.

     To conclude: Is the University an educational bargain? Speaking here not as an alumnus but as a dad waving a checkbook, yes. The education my son receives here is superb; it is arguably far more important to his career than mine was many years ago; and the University’s remarkable rise in national reputation makes his degree more valuable when he begins to seek work.

     I also think the University’s attention to moral behavior, to spiritual quest, to communal responsibility, is more valuable today than ever before, as the moral fabric of society becomes ever more frayed; in these years of terrorism and torture, war and abortion, euthanasia and corruption, his education here is worth more than he and his parents pay for it. In other words, it’s a terrific bargain.

Don Bowler ’69 (bowler@up.edu) is the University’s major gifts officer and father of Kyle Bowler '07

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