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If it's March, it must be time for another tuition increase. Sure enough, the most recent meeting of the Board of Trustees produced a 4.9 percent increase in total student charges for the upcoming academic year. The price tag for a year at frugal Franklin's practical academy is now $34,614. And for the first time in history, the cost of a Penn education is greater than America's per capita Gross Domestic Product. You may have felt, even before this most recent tuition increase, that you were already giving Penn enough money. That may be true. What is important, however, is that you were not giving Penn all of your money. Sixty percent of Penn students did not receive financial aid last year. It stands to reason that most of them will be able to pay full tuition this year, as well. To be sure, the number of students receiving financial aid will increase slightly. And the average aid package will probably increase as well. But financial aid is funded by tuition dollars. So as long as the increase in revenues exceeds the increase in aid -- and you can be sure it will -- Penn gets more money than it did last year. A lot more. For the half of students who live off campus, Penn has actually jacked up the tuition bill by 5.8 percent -- 4.9 is what you get if you average in the 2 percent increase in the cost of room and board -- though University officials told anyone who asked that the increase was actually 3.9 percent, the average rate of increase over the last four years. Now, there is nothing wrong with squeezing people for the money they do have. But the number of people who have $34,000 a year in excess income is not all that large. Which means everyone else, even if they can scrape the money together, will be feeling the pain. Tuition increases do damage in other ways, too. Ever more students don't have time to be intellectuals. They need to take pre-professional courses so they can make professional salaries so they can pay off their college loans. And increased reliance on aid packages will prevent a growing number of students from taking advantage of early acceptance plans at increasingly competitive top-rank schools. Of course, the Board of Trustees doesn't have a very good grasp on such home economics. These are not the kind of people who do their own taxes. They sympathized when Bush Sr. didn't know how much milk cost, and they celebrated when Bush Jr. announced that they won't have to pay taxes any more. And then they went back to work and made a lot of money. This should have qualified them to run the business side of a $3 billion university. Unfortunately, for reasons that remain unclear, they managed to lose money during the longest bull market in United States history. If The Corporation -- as Harvard of course calls its Board of Trustees -- had managed to lose money, it would have been bad. For Penn, it was nearly catastrophic. Just as the University was launching a massive building program, two of its major sources of income -- the endowment and the Health System -- went very dry. And so, while Princeton was busy getting rid of loans entirely, Penn was left scrambling for cash to finish the construction projects it had started. And tuition is a good source of cash. (Incidentally, it seems to me Penn ought to start endowing construction sites. How about "Coming Soon: Sundance Cinemas, Sponsored by SEPTA -- We're Getting There.") Does Penn have the money to fund competitive financial aid packages? Sure -- but the University would have to concede defeat in the constant and desperate push to remain in the top tier of American universities. The present campaign is not an effort to build for a better future so much as an effort to keep Penn where it is in the hierarchy of research institutions. And Penn simply can't build for the future without milking its present student body for every dime it can spare. Which means that this is what it has come to: Penn is forced to devalue academic priorities today so that it can devalue academic priorities again tomorrow.

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