The Expensive Romance of NYU

Tuition rose $18,000 during outgoing president John Sexton's tenure. But who's really to blame for the school's high cost?
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John Sexton, president of New York University, announced last Wednesday he would step down at the end of his term in 2016. Although the Board of Trustees "unanimously and strongly supports President John Sexton," as written in a March memo from Chairman Martin Lipton, many students and members of faculty have been calling for his resignation for months. In March, faculty at the College of Arts and Science, NYU's largest undergraduate school, passed a motion of no confidence against Sexton. In the following months, three other undergraduate schools would pass similar motions.*

Sexton's critics have a range of grievances against him, but they all boil down to one thing: money. Sexton oversaw the Campaign for NYU, which ended in 2008 and raised $3 billion--the most lucrative fundraising campaign in the history of higher education. One would think such a flush of cash might encourage administrators to lower, if not at least stagnate tuition.* Yet over the course of Sexton's presidency (2002 to the present) tuition has increased by more than $18,000. For the upcoming school year, the cost of tuition plus room and board is more than $64,000.

According to a Village Voice cover story, NYU created more student debt than any other American university in 2011, excluding for-profit institutions. As tuition has been increased in the two consecutive years since, the NYU degree has become one of the most expensive in the world--an immense cost only compounded by the school's location in America's most expensive city. And while 90 percent of the class of 2010 reported being either employed full-time or enrolled in a professional certification or graduate study program within a year of graduating, they were also saddled with a collective debt of $659 million --the largest sum owed by a single class in the history of non-profit academia. Some things have improved during Sexton's tenure, of course. Between 2002 and 2012, NYU rose in the U.S. News and World Report ranking of national universities from 35 to 32. Average SAT scores of admitted students have risen by 40 points. Undergraduate applications have almost doubled, and intake has grown as well.

The high cost of attending NYU is hardly breaking news. The school has been known for charging high tuition for years, and its track record for providing financial aid isn't great: As CBS reported earlier this summer, only three percent of NYU students get their full financial needs met by the school. (Compare that to Columbia University, also in Manhattan, which meets the full financial needs of all its students.) Comparatively speaking, New York has always been an expensive city. The high composite cost of an education at NYU is almost common knowledge. And the decision to finance such a costly education, whether personally or with loans, is a choice. A choice I certainly made. So it raises the question: Who's responsible for the debt?

Though I graduated from the school this past spring with a BA in literature, I am not an apologist for NYU. I think giving some faculty members loans for vacation homes is unsavory.* The list of objections goes on: I think plans for expansion in Greenwich Village are invasive, the satellite campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai are unnecessary extravagances, and institutional bureaucracy borders on comical cliché. But as Zac Bissonnette, author of Debt-Free U, wrote in 2011: "NYU students have a legitimate concern--the amount of money that they're borrowing is insane--and the way that they should handle it is to vote with their feet. Transfer to another school. Deprive NYU of its source of revenue and save yourself in the process."

So am I, as an alum of NYU, in some way culpable for the corporatization of the university? By staying through graduation, am I complicit in the out-of-control rise in tuition, the school's ascendancy as the number-one producer of student debt?

"I don't think the school holds all the accountability," says a recent graduate of NYU's music business program. "My mom took out all of my loans in both of our names, but we never discussed how much I was going to owe until now. So it's parents who are at fault, too. And high schools need to offer some sort of tuition counseling before the fact."

I asked her if, looking back, she thinks her 18-year-old self was mature enough to be making such definitive financial decisions. "Absolutely not," she said with a laugh. "But at the same time, if someone had told me I would owe as much as I do, I don't think it would have changed my mind. I was a senior in high school. Everything at that age is so dramatic and romanticized. You're thinking, 'I can't put a price tag on my future.'"

That feeling, she says, bleeds into the first few years of college. "When you're in that culture, freshman and sophomore year, everyone's just excited to be there. You don't think it's ever going to end, but then it's senior year. You hit that quarter-life crisis, and you realize you actually have to pay for it all."

This is the insidious romance of NYU. The university offers to take a romantic idea (being young in New York), and makes it a reality. The product is the degree; the glamour of Greenwich Village is the marketing scheme. And like all good marketing schemes, it works very well.

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Jake Flanagin is a writer for The New York Times's Op-Talk.

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