Just before spring break, I went to the Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks basketball game on a trip sponsored by my dorm. My ticket was free, subsidized by Sansom West College House. Naturally, I thought this was awesome. Free tickets!
Except, it wasn’t free. I paid for them through my College House fee, as did everyone else in my dorm, whether they went to the game or not.
Were all the students demanding 42-inch flatscreen TVs in every single suite in New College House? I personally think this is an unnecessary amenity, but the administration fell all over itself to fund it.
Were all the students demanding cable subscriptions? According to University Board of Trustees Chair David L. Cohen, who also serves as executive vice president at Comcast, “students request[ed] more flexible services in their residencies.” This year, the University bought every on-campus student an Xfinity on Campus package from Comcast. We have no idea what the University paid for this service, which is redundant and unnecessary to anyone who already has a media subscription such as Netflix. Mr. Cohen maintains there was no conflict of interest.
There are all sorts of ridiculous things we pay for. Every freshman and transfer student is required to buy a pricey meal plan which can be used at dining halls. On average, a meal swipe costs roughly $13 – an absurdly high price far exceeding its value. Because you are forced to buy so many meals up front, there is actually a perverse incentive for dining halls to provide terrible service.
There is one contractor, Bon Appétit Management Company, with little University-sanctioned competition and a functional monopoly on any students who have a plan. You’ve already given them revenue at the beginning of the semester, and their costs gradually add up based on the more people they serve. They lose money when students eat there, so the worse of a dining experience you have, the better it is for their bottom line.
The New York Times recently did a piece highlighting the extreme economic stratification of higher education, showing that Penn has more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent combined. Admissions Dean Eric Furda responded to this by highlighting Penn’s growing financial aid program. Recently the University announced that tuition would increase by 3.9 percent, bringing the total cost of attendance to an astronomical $66,000 for 2016-2017. President Gutmann mentioned that the financial aid budget is increasing by more to compensate.
Maybe fewer people would need financial aid if college weren’t so expensive?
We are somewhat removed from the costs, because we never actually see the dollar amount. Most of the time, we are given a price ahead of time for a specific item and we are able to say “Yes, I want this” or “No, I don’t want this”.
When it comes to these college expenses, we are not given such a choice. All sorts of stuff is first purchased for us, then offered to us in a false show of generosity on behalf of the University. Would we really want the things we are “offered” if we could see the price tag?
The Penn Operating Budget is big and detailed but far from complete. For example, the School of Arts and Sciences, a $500 million operation, is given a total of three pages of breakdown. Still, there is some evidence of mismanagement. Case in point, there are more full time employees in “Administrative Centers,” which includes alumni relations, human resources and information technology, among others, than full time faculty members in all the undergraduate and graduate schools combined (on page 105). It is quite obvious that a University with more full-time bureaucrats than professors is doing something wrong.
Let me be clear. The University of Pennsylvania is nickel and diming us, providing us poor services, buying us things we never asked for, spending our money on things we don’t use, then crying crocodile tears wondering why working- and middle-class students can’t afford to attend.
Every time the University raises tuition and other costs, then increases financial aid to compensate, it creates another opportunity for low-income students to fall through the cracks and be denied a chance at a Penn education.
If the administration is serious about making education affordable, they can start by admitting the problem is the way they spend money. But as Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
JOE THARAKAN is a College senior from the Bronx, studying biological basis of behavior. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Cup O’Joe” usually appears every other Tuesday.
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