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?

Tomás Fano/flickr

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.

Images of Greenwich Village and Manhattan are splashed across recruitment literature. Prospective students are taken on tours that focus on the picturesque Washington Square Park, which is actually property of the City of New York. It's a tactic that greatly influenced my own decision to attend. Sitting on a park bench in the summer of 2008, with a jazz quartet serenading passersby under the Fifth Avenue Arch, I thought I had stumbled into a Woody Allen movie. The tour guides brag about internship opportunities "you won't find anywhere else"; the Broadway shows, the book signings and gallery openings; falafel stands, banh mi trucks, and coffee shops--it's all understandably attractive. But of course the tour guides don't tell you how much it all costs, and to be fair, no one really asks.

Hollywood plays its part in accentuating the allure. NYU is a constant pop culture fixture. The glamorous kids on Gossip Girl went there. Paparazzi snapped photos of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen pouting at the Starbucks on Washington Square East, Dakota Fanning skulking around the Gallatin School. The school is so mythologized it even inspires its own breed of quasi-fan fiction.

NYU consistently ranks among Princeton Review's "Top 10 Dream Schools," punching well above its academic weight in the category of romance. That dream draws students from far and wide. Although New Yorkers and New Jerseyites form the two largest geographic contingencies, faraway states like California, Florida, Texas, and Illinois are all well represented in each incoming undergraduate class. This is a drastic change from NYU's early days as quiet, Tri-State commuter school.

But as much as NYU's behemoth marketing campaign seduces prospective students, it also creates casualties: promising young men and women forced to withdraw when financial aid packages revealed to be lackluster, or banks declined to extend credit. They're $64,000 or $128,000 in the hole with no diploma to show for it.

Those who are able to secure loans must scrape by, balancing studies with part-time jobs to afford even the simplest of pleasures, all while padding their résumés with (often unpaid) internships. What results is class after class of outgoing graduates, world-weary before their time.

I spent my last college spring break in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University. To most, it's not the most exotic locale. But to a second-semester senior at NYU, it was adventure tourism.

There are obvious differences between the two schools, despite the fact that they boast student bodies of nearly the same size (roughly 43,000 including graduate programs). Location is the most evident. The 43,000 students at NYU exist in the context of New York City's 8.3 million residents, and on a campus that quietly weaves in and out of a vast stretch of lower Manhattan. IU's 43,000 students compose more than half of Bloomington's total population. Another significant fraction consists of university staff and faculty. And on game days, no matter where you work, or if and where you went to college, everyone in Bloomington is a die-hard Hoosier. Bloomington is IU, IU is Bloomington. Most "game days" at NYU go by totally unnoticed.

The Hoosiers I know in the class of 2013 were not necessarily looking forward to graduation. The same goes for Wolverines, Badgers, Fighting Illini, Hawkeyes, and Nittany Lions. The sentiment had nothing to do with job prospects--many secured employment long before my friends at NYU. Instead, they were sad to leave. It was a bittersweet realization that college life was coming to a close. Graduation day would be one-part celebration, one-part funeral. "We only have seven weekends left before graduation!" A friend and Indiana alumna recalls her roommates chanting this whenever she felt like spending a quiet Friday night at home. The IU grads I met are not prematurely world-weary. They're satiated by a well-rounded college experience; no frills, but no delusions.

I returned to New York with a heavy souvenir: regret. NYU doesn't a foster a community of spirit like IU. For the most part, people don't stop to chat between classes. We kept our eyes averted as we buffeted between buildings on Washington Square. We maintained small pockets of friends that met mostly off-campus, usually too cash-strapped or busy to cultivate any real memories. And now I wonder if Indiana, which accepted me in 2009 and offered a scholarship, would have been a better choice.

An Indiana education would have been substantially cheaper. Rent, transportation, even a morning coffee in Bloomington are a fraction of Manhattan prices. Sure, I might have forfeited the fantastic internship opportunities NYU's urban location affords, but IU has a great journalism program, an on-campus NPR affiliate, and an award-winning student paper that actually pays its contributors. I would have been well equipped to take on adulthood and media job market, but with the added bonus of a few choice college memories.

I can't say I feel cheated out of a more affordable, more memorable college experience, though. "Cheated" suggests I was forced or tricked into doing something against my will. I was persuaded, but not tricked. Nor can I say with any empiricism that I would have been happier at a school like IU. For all I know, my experience there could have been horrible.

I bought into the romance of NYU. I bought into the romance of the self-sufficient urbanite. It was expertly marketed to me in no different a fashion than a car or a vacation. But this raises a second question: If a college education can be marketed like a vehicle, why don't more young people approach it with the same financial pragmatism? Why do so many of us allow ourselves to be clouded by emotion at the expense of personal happiness, or future credit scores?

Answer: "You can't put a price tag on your future." Or, as UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block wrote, "You can't put a price tag on a good education." It may be the most effective copy ever written. But ultimately, it's just that: copy. The decision to buy the product still lies with the consumer, no matter how seductive the advertising is.

Perhaps some form of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should exist for incoming college freshmen. Perhaps parents should be more involved in helping their offspring make financially prudent school selections. Perhaps higher education should be completely free for everyone. I'm not sure what the precise solution is, but I know the problem is systemic. And blaming one party, or one man (John Sexton) isn't the answer. For now, instead of shaking a fist at high tuitions while signing a loan agreement with the other hand, do what any smart consumer does: Take your business elsewhere.

This post originally misstated the number of NYU schools that passed a no-confidence vote against Sexton. It also incorrectly implied that the Campaign for NYU was created to fund the school's new local and global expansions, and that that tuition dollars were used to fund vacation home loans for faculty. We regret the errors.