Thursday, March 26, 2015

Where Do My Tuition Dollars Go?

The University of Rochester Students Association in recent years has put on a "5K Challenge", in which students can submit proposals of what they would do to improve our campus with $5,000. This year, the winning proposal with 790 votes of our 5,000 plus student body, decided that what our campus was missing was sleeping pods in the quiet section of Gleason Library. The plan, which has been it seems half implemented thus far, is to place eight sleeping pods in Gleason for students to sleep in when they want to spend all night in the library. Aside from the obvious problem with encouraging students to pull all nighters in the library, the implementation of this plan speaks to a larger problem with American universities that I've begun to notice after spending several months at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

American institutions compete to provide students the best educational experience that they can, but how much is that educational experience enhanced by a rock climbing wall, smoothie bars, and late night panini's? At Trinity College in Dublin, there are no dining halls, no food plans, and very basic student amenities. Part of this is possible because Trinity is located in the heart of Dublin, where students have easy access to a variety of restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores in the city centre. Education in Ireland is also, at every institution, free. I've lived off campus, as do most students studying at Trinity, during my time in Ireland. I don't find it particularly hard to make it to the grocery store and cook my own meals. Students don't complain about a lack of food options on campus, despite there being no formal student eating areas, just small cafes and restaurants that operate independently of the university in their facilities.

I think that we need to ask ourselves what we are paying for when we look at American higher education. Obviously for a school like the University of Connecticut which is in a rural area and Northeastern in the heart of Boston, there are different practical limitations on being able to be sufficient of your University in terms of food and amenities. I think food is the best example because it is very easy to see where we are getting gipped. The University of Rochester offers a variety of meal plans to students. The plans which seem to be the most popular are the declining balance meal plan. When you purchase for instance the option A Declining plan which offers you the largest declining balance, you pay $2,765 per semester. Does this mean you are getting $2,765 on your meal plan? No, because these plans do not work dollar for dollar. You only receive $2,155 in declining balance. Where does that extra $610 go? It is presumably for the upkeep of the dining facilities. If everyone at the University of Rochester purchased that meal plan, the University would be making upwards of 3 million dollars out of the dining process. Not all students end up choosing this meal plan, as many opt to live off campus as they get older due to the astronomical cost of housing at the University. I understand that due to the dining facilities that are provided there is a level of money that they need to pay their workers and keep everything running smoothly. I do not, however, find this explanation as plausible after having spent five minutes in our campus "market" called Hillside. Hillside is a small grocery store that provides food to students at outrageous prices and at low quality. The fruit purchased from hillside often expires much quicker than usual and you purchase it at prices that are far higher than what you would see at a typical grocery store. For example, the frozen dinners that are very popular with students cost approximately $7 at Hillside. You can purchase these same dinners for $3-4 at a regular grocery store.

It seems like at every turn the University is there to take some more of your money, whether it be meal plans, or housing, a whole separate and frustrating issue, given that we pay large sums of money for housing that is totally sub par. Last year upon moving me into my dorm room my father's fiancé was horrified to realize that even after she scrubbed my floor with a rag and cleaning solution (thanks Christina!), that the hair she had seen was actually glazed into the linoleum, which is nothing to say for the cinderblock walls that really provide a cozy and prison-esque atmosphere for students.

It is all of this and my $60,000 a year tuition that makes it seem so frivolous to be spending $5,000 a year on things that we don't need. I appreciate the Student's Association's effort to better our campus, but if they really wanted to make our campus better, than they should work on spending $5,000 on scholarships for students that are struggling to pay for our ever rising cost of tuition instead of spending more money on unnecessary amenities. Maybe we are going about things the wrong way in the US--we should be focusing on spending tuition dollars not on frivolous additions to our already tricked out campuses in comparison with the rest of the world, but on making sure that students actually have the potential to reap the benefits of the amazing facilities our campus already has to offer.

I don't know how the budget for the University of Rochester works and I don't know how exactly my tuition dollars are spent. Rochester is also by no means the only university with rising tuition costs spending money at times on questionable campus enhancements (do NOT get me started on the giant touchscreen TV things in the library). It is just so much cheaper to live and eat off campus, maybe we are doing it wrong. Maybe we should let students be independent and not force them to live inside an overpriced campus bubble. With the astronomical tuition costs in the US I think we need to rethink our approach to educational facilities. Part of what is so frustrating is that there is no transparency. Where do my tuition dollars really go? I really couldn't tell you. I think that increasing transparency could be the first step in moving towards a system that is actually affordable for students. Having spent three months as an independent European student I don't feel that a lack of campus facilities such as dining halls or dorms (Trinity has limited on campus student housing) has impacted my experience at all. We need to reflect on what we are really getting from universities and what their responsibility to provide to students should be. In my opinion, the responsibility of universities should first and foremost be education, everything else is walking a thin line between essential and unnecessary.

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