Moving Forward?

Taylor Atkinson

Staff Writer

 

Tuition. It just seems to climb up and up every year. Across the U.S., institutions of higher education are demanding more compensation for their services and students are digging deeper into their future-selves’ pockets to pay it off.  After the letters arrived in our mailboxes and the calculators quantified next year’s financial pain, we were told that “it’s normal” and “we’re below the national average.”  However, this school sells itself on the fact that it isn’t normal and it certainly isn’t average.  There are many reasons why I’ve spent hours looking at tuition numbers and housing costs trying to make sense of them all.  One of them is that being told “you’re going to have to pay more next year” and “it’s normal, don’t worry” by the same person isn’t reassuring at all.

I have put together a set of data that looks at tuition, fees, housing, and meal plan prices.  This data covers the years 2002-2013.  My conclusions are based off of this data set.

The most important number is the total increase in what we’ll be paying.  For my numbers this includes average housing, tuition (which, as you may recall, now includes student fees), and a full meal plan.  Next year will be the third biggest total increase.  Looking at the other years, though, it doesn’t seem to be too far above normal.  However, you have to take into account that the meal plan didn’t increase at all, which is unprecedented in the 11 years of data that I look at.  If the meal plan had gone up by an average amount (about $180), then next year’s total increase would have been the second largest.

Tuition increase is not really the biggest factor behind this large increase in price; it’s the average cost of housing that’s mainly doing that.  Tuition, combined with student fees, is increasing $1,240.  In relation to past increases this is on the high side of normal.  Housing, on the other hand, increased dramatically. The upcoming increase in the cost to live in Rotary is the biggest increase out of all of the dorm increases for as far back as my data set goes.  The increase to live in Cline is the second largest in the Cline data set and the increase to live on the northside is the third largest.  The increase I understand is the Rotary increase.  The increase I don’t is Cline’s.  Last year’s increase of $640 was attributable to the renovation.  So why is it increasing $600 next semester?

Regardless of why Cline prices increased, I believe their effect is clear to most students.  The mandatory residency requirement put financially struggling students between a rock and a hard place.  The recent increase in Cline prices took a hammer and hit the rock. Prior to the mandatory residency requirement, students who could not afford to live on campus (or those who were not satisfied with on-campus life and/or Caf food) could simply move off campus.  Yes, this does decrease the amount of money the college gets because it relies a lot on housing fees and meal plans.  However, they could still be a satisfied student at Centenary College.  With the residency requirement, students who would have otherwise lived off campus are now required to stay on campus.  This presents a serious issue to students with financial needs. Now they either have to find the money to pay for a dorm room or drop out of Centenary entirely.  The middle-ground has been completely removed and only the two extremes remain.  If a student with financial needs does happen to scrounge up the money to pay for a meal plan and housing, the most logical choice of dorm is Cline because it is the cheapest.  Yet cline has increased by $1,240 in the past two years, the largest two-year increase since at least 2003 by a longshot (interestingly, $1,240 is also exactly the size of this year’s tuition and fee increase).  Next semester Cline will cost as much as the northside does currently and will be more expensive than a double in Rotary in 2010.

There is no “out,” No pressure release valve for when the strain becomes too much.  What happens the next time they renovate a dorm and the cost goes up? Or the next time tuition or fees go up? The cost saving measure of moving off campus is now off the table; as a result, I predict retention rates will decline.

Not long ago, there was a Centenary Confessions page post that stated that Centenary could have less than 500 students next year.  At first I thought that this was an exaggeration.  However, after looking at the numbers, it is entirely all too possible.  Historically, Centenary has had a retention rate in between 70% and 80%.  Based off of the number of incoming students who have already put in deposits as of April, which is highly correlated with the number of students who make up the freshman class in August (r = .788 for those of you curious about the statistics), it would be reasonable to predict next year’s incoming freshman to be the size of last year’s incoming freshman class or smaller. Based on a 75% retention rate and an incoming freshman class of 163 (equal to last year’s incoming class), next year’s undergraduate class will consist of 482 students.  Dropping below 609 undergraduates would make next year’s student body smaller than any class since at least 1964 (that’s as far back as my data goes).  This possibility is concerning to both the students and the faculty that I have talked with.

Why is this happening? Why aren’t people signing up for Centenary in the amounts they used to?  There are certainly a lot of factors at play.  The following is my opinion based on experience, interviews, and intuition; as such, it should be taken with a grain of salt.

Based on my experience, a major reason that students come to Centenary is the incredible value.  A Tier 1 college for under $23,000 (in 2010) with a high scholarship opportunity is mighty attractive.  It made us stand out against schools like Hendrix, Millsaps, and Trinity.  Now, after the skyrocketing tuition and housing cost, we’re not as nearly as differentiated from similar colleges that rank a lot higher than us.  This, combined with the campus living requirement, seriously damaged the attractiveness of Centenary.

Speaking of Tier 1, it’s quite disingenuous for the administration to say we should celebrate our status as a Tier 1 college.  It used to be a coveted title back when it included the top 25% of schools.  Now?  It includes the top 75% of schools (and we’re located in the bottom portion of that 75%).  Not really something to get excited and make a t-shirt about.

I’m not ignorant of the fact that Centenary is trying to balance the budget and develop a sustainable business model, both of which are good goals to aim for.  I’m certainly not advocating that we should toss out the decisions made thus far and revert tuition and housing back to 2010 levels.  What I am saying is that we need to have an accurate picture of why students come to Centenary (or why they choose other colleges over Centenary) and why students move off campus.  This information will give us a clearer picture of the impact of decisions like raising tuition and requiring students to live on campus.

The administration thinks that the enrollment issues that Centenary faces can be solved by doubling down on World Houses and challenge courses.  The new course curriculum proposal raises a whole host of issues, a few of which I will address here.

NOTE: It was recently clarified that the details of the proposed curriculum are not set in stone; the faculty has instead been asked to vote on the “commitments,” the broad ideas, of the plan.  A faculty committee is in the process of reviewing what these commitments mean and what the implications of agreeing to them will be.  It is probably too early to come to any hard conclusions.  Nonetheless, the administration didn’t just fill in details for the heck of it.  The proposal is their vision of the implementation that they want the faculty to use as a rough draft for the final curriculum.  It’s like the commitments are the abstract and the curriculum is the paper.  It’s possible to write a new paper with the same abstract, but what details can or will be tweaked remain unclear.  These are the concerns I have about the proposal.

The requirement to go on a May Module to Haiti (Haiti isn’t stated, but implied will disproportionately affect low-income students.   Paying for an international trip is no small feat.  The administration’s answer to this will surely be “Passport Points.”  The implications of this is concerning.  Low income students will effectively be required to attend Centenary events, reducing their freedom of choice.  It will become increasingly difficult to evaluate events by attendance because you won’t be able to separate the students who came because they wanted to and those who came because they have to in order to graduate.

The additional requirements that the new curriculum imposes will make it difficult to fit in electives, much less get all of your classes in for your major.  Many have said that it would require summer courses just to get the hours in.  This limits the ability of students to freely choose their interdisciplinary endeavors (example: you must take French), puts strain on majors with large course loads and makes double-majoring practically impossible.  Also, a major’s requirements is limited to 11 courses.  This could affect students looking to go to grad school if they’re not able to take the number of classes in their major that they would like to in order to look appealing to graduate schools.  A big part of Centenary’s attractiveness is its pre-med program.  Implementation of the new curriculum in its current state could damage its effectiveness and make the program less appealing, further pushing away the students we need.

The delegation of each challenge to a particular department is in violation of the interdisciplinary nature of a true liberal arts college.  Natural Science isn’t the only field that can address Sustainability, and one can delve into the meaning of life in courses outside of the Humanities.

Throughout all of the proposed details, one theme runs through and through: our options are being limited.  Centenary would restrict what courses we can take, where we live, and where we travel.  Few students are interested in a college that restricts their personal and academic freedom.  The administration believes that there is a demographic of students out there that will go for this sort of setup.  I’m inclined to agree; however, there are most certainly not enough of them to support the future of the college.

I love Centenary.  I truly do.  I think that Centenary offers an incredibly unique college experience filled with close student-faculty and student-student relationships and an incredible array of opportunities that would be much more difficult to access at a larger institution.  Given the chance to do it all over again I would still choose Centenary.  I also get frustrated frequently with Centenary, its administrative decisions, and the student-administration relationship (which is improving a little, but still has a long way to go).  It is precisely because I love Centenary that I raise my concerns so frequently.  I raise these concerns because I want Centenary to thrive and I’m scared that certain policies, while well-intentioned, are not going to achieve that goal.

“Labor Omnia Vincit.”  I wish I could read that. Maybe I’ll take a Latin class.  Oh, wait…they got rid of Latin…

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Comments

  1. Betsy Rankin says:

    Great article Taylor!

  2. Victoria says:

    Good Job Taylor!

  3. The last line is spot on.

  4. Clint B. says:

    As a former Centenary Latin major, I was appalled when Classical Languages were eliminated. It’s been 11 years since I graduated and the knowledge of language I acquired in those courses continues to serve me.

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