Notes: Let Them Call Room Service

Putting the cost of tuition in perspective


THE YEARS have been kind to me,but lately age has begun to ravage my children, and now another one, little Nell, has surprised me with the news that she is ready for college. This is unsettling for all sorts of reasons. I suppose it would be vain to deny that money is among them, but on that score anyway I’ve been reassured by some of the country’s educational leaders.

College presidents in recent years have understandably wearied of hearing complaints about the ever-rising fees they charge, and are assuming a more assertive attitude toward the consumer. Elizabeth Coleman, of Bennington, wrote to parents this year with a note of triumph that the tuition increase of 2.9 percent was, proportionally, “the lowest in the school’s history.” The new figure is $23,880 for the year, or roughly the median after-tax income of an American family. Before his recent retirement Derek Bok, of Harvard, remarked that Harvard was, after all, a lot cheaper than the Ritz, across the river in Boston. Tuition at Harvard this year is $23,514.

My favorite college president, the estimable Peter Pouncey, of Amherst, elaborated on this insight in a letter announcing Amherst’s new tuition, a relative bargain at $22,700. President Pouncey pointed out that prorated, the cost of attending the school amounted to just $106 a day for meals, lodging, and all sorts of diversions, from tennis courts to spectrometers. He asked, “What other human institution in America—hotel, conference center, think-tank, hospital, prison— could come close to offering this array of goods and services at so low a cost?”

has a point. Certainly I’ve stayed at hotels that cost more than $106 where you couldn’t even find a microscope. In fact, I was so taken by President Pouncey’s reasoning that I called up Amherst at once to book Nell a room. We had in mind a couple of weeks in fall, peak of foliage, football season. It would be the kind of experience that produces a lifetime of memories. I figured fourteen days for $1,484—expensive, but something I just wanted to do for the girl. I’m afraid we got a rather chilly response.

ALL, THIS has set me thinking about questions of comparative value. As always, historical perspective is our friend. In 1958 the tuition at Harvard College was $1,250. I have this from a useful little book called American Chronicle, which provides another bit of supposed trivia, though it seems of vital import to me: in the same year, the cost of an economy-class ticket, round trip, from New York to Paris was $489. These figures evoke for me a lost world of tranquillity and good sense.

There is, I think, a rightness beyond nostalgia to those sweet numbers, and I find the airfare—wildly, romantically expensive—nearly as beguiling as the tuition. Surely it is a self-evident truth of modern life that too many people travel and too few get educated. Forget absolute numbers for a moment. Would the world not be a better place if it cost nearly half as much to fly to Paris as to attend Harvard? More exactly, would not both Harvard and Paris be better off if it were easier to get to the one and harder to get to the other?

The $1,250 figure cited above must refer solely to tuition, and one no doubt needs to add in a few hundred dollars for room and board. So while at first glance it might seem that college costs have increased by a factor of, say, twenty, in truth it’s only about fourteen times as expensive to get an education as it used to be. If international airfares had increased similarly, the round-trip ticket to Paris would cost $6,846—unappealing compared with today’s $750, But suppose both prices had risen in lockstep with the overall inflation rate of about 400 percent. Then Harvard, tuition alone, would cost $5,000, and Paris, economy class, $1,956. Now we’re talking: you could go to Harvard and Paris for $16,558 less than the current cost of Harvard alone, a saving sufficient to provide adequate room and board in both places. More to the point, you could send a child to Harvard, house him or her comfortably, buy two tickets to Paris, and have about $10,0000 left over for lunch. Suppose prices had risen at double the inflation rate: Harvard, with room and board included, would come to about $16,000. You could still pay that bill and buy two (well-deserved) tickets, at $3,912 each, for the amount of the current fee.

I suppose this would not seem a bargain to the childless, but in point of fact higher airfares might be a boon to all. I think that at about the $4,000-per-ticket level, economy class, the airlines would actually want to give you something nice, like legroom. And mightn’t this price, by separating the serious traveler from the impulse buyer, improve inflight tone? So that next time the entire Massapequa High School Marching Band might not be sitting behind you making music with its armpits?

BY AVOIDING unseemly fare wars, colleges have managed since the magic year of 1958 to lap and lap again inflation’s own brisk pace. But as a consumer you can cling to a couple of reassuring facts. First, now is an excellent time to buy compared with later, because at the accustomed rate of increase, in one more generation freshman year will cost perhaps $330,000. Second, you’re getting true value. This was borne out on a recent tour of several of New England’s leading colleges undertaken by Nell and me.

Today’s students have skills undreamed of even fifteen years ago. To take a small but significant example, they all know how to walk backward. Without fail our tour guides conducted their entire presentation without losing eye contact and without regard for where they were going.

Our visit to the sought-after New Hampshire school Merrychase was typical. Our guide, with the engaging good manners of the young, began by asking us what her name was: “Hi. I’m Melissa? I’m a junior from San Ysidro, California, majoring in Shortness Studies, and I’ll be your guide today!”

Colleges seem eager to please these days. You can see it in the dining complexes with facilities for omnivores, vegetarians, vegans, and hunter-gatherers. (“Because a lot of guys here? They really have a problem eating things they haven’t killed with their own hands.”) Living conditions on campus are generally just as cozy as you might remember, and they seem even cozier, because the average American male is 8.4 inches taller than a generation ago and is powered by 1,100 pounds of electronic equipment. (He also has a live-in girlfriend, which you might think would free up rooms elsewhere but doesn’t.) So the rooms have both sophistication and intimacy, rather like airplane cockpits in which for the past few days the crew has been drinking beer and sorting its laundry.

What Melissa said about Merrychase applies at all the finer schools. As I remember, it’s need-blind and incredibly diverse. Classes are small except for the few that are large, but are really small anyway because they meet in sections, which are mostly taught by real professors who are accessible. Professors invite you to dinner. There are no requirements. It’s a great place to be but you only have to be here for the last semester of senior year if you decide to do field study. The work load is intense, and the atmosphere is really supportive.

Melissa tripped only once, and that was over a tiny, well-dressed man who was picking grass from the cracks in the sidewalk. “Oops! Hi, Mr. Neville! That was Mr. Neville. He’s on PWP.” She explained that PWP was the parents’ work program, available for parents who want to work their children’s way through college. “My roommate’s mom is like a room-cleaner-person.”

This was of course inspiring. And the leaves were acrunch underfoot, and the imposing white bell tower sent chimes pealing, and the notes seemed to bounce off the blue dome of the sky above. These are wonderful places, and surely worth a bit of sacrifice, I thought. Nell seemed to agree. She is applying to Merrychase, as it turns out, and now we just have to wait to see if she’s admitted. If not, I guess it’s 133 round trips to Paris for her mother and 133 companion fares for me.

—Richard Todd