The clouded definition behind “tuition” is shielding the true cost of college



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Today’s media often highlights and discusses rising tuition costs and the price of a university education. Tuition is a prominent factor in choosing a university. The long list of numbers after a dollar sign haunts many students as they begin their college careers. In fact, many students must think of their tuition long after they have graduated because student loans still loom over their heads. As tuition is such a daunting number in most students’ lives, it makes sense that there would be a stable definition of the term and what it means to each student’s yearly expenses. However, the meaning of tuition has changed as its cost has risen. It is no longer a valuable number, and universities should change their system of expenses to inform their students about the real costs they will pay, along with what their money will be used for.

In terms of college costs, tuition is now rarely considered separate from fees that are charged per year or semester. Usually, tuition is the majority of the total costs, but even that is not guaranteed. Tuition for public colleges and universities in Massachusetts is currently less than two thousand dollars per year for state residents, but the fees can add over ten thousand dollars to the cost of attendance each year. Institutions are often unclear about the purpose of these fees separate from tuition, but it further obscures the definition of “tuition” and how it’s used for those who must pay it.

UConn 2016-2017 tuition and fees are displayed on the admissions website. Below the image, admissions notes that "Books and supplies, transportation and other miscellaneous costs are estimated to be an additional $3650 for in-state students and $4150 for out-of-state students." (Screenshot/UConn Admissions)

UConn 2016-2017 tuition and fees are displayed on the admissions website. Below the image, admissions notes that “Books and supplies, transportation and other miscellaneous costs are estimated to be an additional $3650 for in-state students and $4150 for out-of-state students.” (Screenshot/UConn Admissions)

For high profile universities such as the Ivy Leagues, the tuition stated for the school does not mean much for the majority of students and their families. Most students who go to Ivy League schools receive financial aid, which is affected by aid policy more than by the actual tuition price of the university. For most students attending Ivy Leagues and similar status schools, the tuition does not give them an idea of what they will pay for school.

Tuition, which is supposed to indicate the sum of money charged by a school for instruction, no longer clearly indicates the amount of money a school will charge for enrollment. Universities, therefore, should come up with a system to fully disclose the total cost a student will face when attending that institution. This system should include a range for how much attending students pay, from full scholarship and financial aid to full paying students, and should also list the average price that students pay.

Other useful numbers that universities should publish are the percent of their funds that are dedicated to instruction of students and the amount that goes towards administration. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, instruction only accounted for 26 percent of total expenses for public institutions during the 2013-2014 fiscal year. For private non-profit institutions, this number was 33 percent, and for private for-profit institutions, it was 27 percent. Universities’ main objective is education, yet the money spent to achieve this is a considerably small proportion of the total expenses.

Studies in university expenses display that the rise in costs for attending universities is not the cost of instruction but the money spent in administration. The Delta Cost Project displayed that, at large research universities, the biggest increase in cost per student between 2001 and 2011 was in administration. The increase is so great that in a recent report, Bain & Co management consultants recently stated, “In no other industry would overhead costs be allowed to grow at this rate — executives would lose their jobs.” This increase in spending for administration displays a shift in the use of tuition money and further obscures a student’s understanding of the money they pay to attend a university and where exactly that money goes.

In recent decades, tuition prices have risen quicker than inflation or the price of health care. During this time, both the definition of this term and its uses have warped. A list of numbers disclosing ranges and averages that students pay for attending an institution would provide students with a much clearer idea of their costs, and universities providing information about the use of the money would allow students to further understand the system. Perhaps this more transparent system would allow students and administration to work together to find a way to lower costs.

Alyssa Luis is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at

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