Trustees Discuss Changes to Housing, Tuition

By Joe Flaherty

Changes to tuition and senior housing are on the table following the latest meeting of the Board of Trustees. While the Trustees tackled a variety of topics in their January 22 to 24 meeting, their discussions indicate two significant changes in the months ahead for the College’s finances and infrastructure.

In addition to discussing whether the College should increase the comprehensive fee beyond the specific formula, the Trustees tentatively approved (pending decisions on the final design and project financing) a plan for housing on Ridgeline and Adirondack View, where proposed senior residences are intended to assuage town-gown tension.  

Notably, in the meeting the administration recommended to the Trustees that the College depart from the existing formula used to calculate and control increases in tuition and room and board. The formula, referred to as CPI+1, capped increases in the comprehensive fee to no more than one percentage point greater than the year’s increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), a measurement of inflation.

President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz said in an interview that in the recent meeting the administration suggested a three to five percent increase rather than strict reliance on the CPI+1 formula.  In the years prior to the 2010 adoption of the CPI+1 formula, the administration would recommend a range for any potential comprehensive fee increase.

Liebowitz said, “This past meeting, we recommended a range once again by showing them the reasons why we thought we had to move away from CPI+1.” 

Pressures on the College’s budget include a higher percentage of the student body receiving financial aid and costs driven by compensation and federally mandated regulations, which require new staffing. The class of 2018 had 48 percent of the incoming students receiving financial aid, the highest level in the College’s history. Additionally, Liebowitz wrote in his email to the College community that operating costs in higher education have risen due to compensation costs rising faster than inflation, largely because of the increasing cost of benefits.

As a strategy for controlling the rise in tuition, CPI+1 appears to have been an effective one. Liebowitz explained that when CPI+1 was adopted in 2010, Middlebury was among the most expensive liberal arts colleges in a 21-school peer group.  Now, the College’s 2014-2015 comprehensive fee of $59,160 sits below its peer schools in New England, including Williams College ($61,070), Amherst College ($61,206) and Wesleyan University ($61,198). 

When asked whether the Trustees have discussed how the comprehensive fee continuing to rise beyond 60k could price out prospective students who are neither able to pay the full fee nor qualify for substantial financial aid, Liebowitz said the board discusses access for middle-income families year in and year out, and will continue to do so at each of their meetings.

“Middle-income families are the ones who often don’t apply to schools like Middlebury because they’re not aware that even they are eligible for financial aid,” Liebowitz said. “Even with CPI+1, we’re concerned about the middle class and about families knowing that, even though they may think they’re not going to be eligible for financial aid at Middlebury, they should apply anyway.” 

According to the administration’s plan, students already on aid will not be affected by any increase beyond CPI+1 because their aid packages should increase accordingly. “We don’t think this shift in setting the tuition is going to affect the middle class all that much so long as they apply for financial aid,” Liebowitz said.

In response to whether the administration has long-term plans to control the inexorable rise of the comprehensive fee in the absence of CPI+1, Liebowitz said the College’s concern with the cost of higher education is nothing new and was what led to CPI+1 in the first place.

“We had discussions about the sustainability of the model in almost every committee meeting,” Liebowitz said. “This is a continuation of the discussion and is not something new. What is new is the regulatory environment, which has forced us to add staff members and which increases costs – salary and benefits are more than half of our operating budget.”

Additionally, Liebowitz said that although the administration had recommended discontinuing CPI+1, the College has been exploring solutions to the pressures causing tuition to rise.

 “We started late in the game in terms of building our endowment, but we, unlike other liberal arts colleges, have multiple revenue streams—that’s why the language schools, and schools abroad, additional revenue streams, are important to Middlebury, because they help underwrite the overall budget of the College,” Liebowitz said.

While the Board will continue discussing next year’s comprehensive fee and no decision has been made, all indications are that the College will discontinue the existing formula. In the 2013-2014 comprehensive fee, the College took the first step toward moving away from CPI+1. The Trustees increased room and board beyond the CPI+1 formula for the first time, calculating it separately from the increase in tuition.

In addition to their sessions on risk management and online learning ventures, the Trustees gave preliminary approval to a plan to construct additional senior housing near the Ridgeline houses and on Adirondack View.

In his email, Liebowitz wrote that the new housing “is intended to improve senior-level housing, reinstate lounges that had been used for housing students, eliminate the mods (which are several years beyond their recommended lifespan), and reduce the number of students who are living off campus.”  

The construction plan comes on the heels of a fall semester that saw significant town-gown tension over parties hosted by students living in non-College owned off-campus housing on Weybridge Street. When asked whether the College’s relationship with Middlebury residents was a factor in the plan to reduce students living off-campus, Liebowitz said it was but that the proposal has been in the works for many years, driven by the commitment to the town to replace the mods, which have been used beyond their intended lifespan.

“We accelerated the Board’s discussion even though the Board had been discussing the replacement of the mods and new housing on Adirondack View and Ridgeline for quite a while,” Liebowitz said.

As a part of the new housing plan, the administration intends to reduce the number of students living off-campus, which currently is around 110, in part because of concerns voiced by Middlebury residents about parties in a primarily residential area.  

“We would feel comfortable with a smaller number of students being able to live off-campus,” Liebowitz said. “The goal is to reduce the density of students living around Shannon Street and Weybridge because that’s where more of the new non-College rentals are being rented by students, which has created some problems in the neighborhood.”  

Current residents of the mods Zoe Kaslow ’15 and Cate Costley ’15 reacted to the plan with optimism and high expectations for the mods’ replacement.

“It is evident that [the mods] are past their sell-by date,” said Costley, who has lived in the mods since last spring. “That being said, it’s a great way to live with 6 other people in a discrete building. It’s a home,” she added.

Kaslow, who also serves as the president of the Middlebury College Activities Board (MCAB), said the ideal senior housing in the Ridgeline and Adirondack View area would replicate the feeling of independence the mods offer.

“I’m really excited to see what they do. I hope that they get a lot of student input,” Kaslow said. “I think seniors should step up and tell the administration what they think because the first-years don’t know. It’s important to say your last bit and provide insight in that way. Even if we’re not going to see it come to fruition, it’s important that we give our knowledge.”

On Tuesday night, members of the Dean of Students Office, Facilities Services, and representatives from the design firm spearheading the new residences presented the plan in Bicentennial Hall. The project, which represents the first new residential housing construction since the Atwater halls were built, is set to undergo future discussion as the financing and construction plans are finalized.