Fuzzy Math

By Emily Gold Boutilier / January / February 2004
June 8th, 2007
Brown took the moral high ground when it admitted the class of ’07 without regard to students’ ability to pay. But the high ground has introduced a wild card into the financial-aid deck, causing budget officials to wonder: how much is financial aid going to cost now?

Predicting the answer now that admissions determine the financial-aid budget, rather than the other way around, is tougher than ever, because administrators don’t know until late just how much help freshmen will need.

No one knows this better than Director of Financial Aid Michael Bartini. This year, he says, 42 percent of freshmen are on aid, receiving an average of $20,800 in University grants and $2,450 in federal and other grants. Next year, as word spreads that Brown is need-blind, Bartini is projecting an increase of two percentage points. But he also says he wouldn’t be surprised if the actual number is a couple of points higher or lower. “Who knows?” he says. “In this need-blind world you’ve got to be able to live with the swings.”

Figuring out how much to set aside for financial aid is part of a budgeting calculus that begins when the University Resources Committee, made up of administrators, faculty, and students, assesses all departmental needs and advises the president on expenditures and revenues. In February, armed with this information the Corporation sets tuition.

According to Susan Howitt ’80, associate vice president for budget and planning, tuition is determined in part by how much Brown must spend in areas such as salaries, financial aid, and health insurance. But it’s not as simple as saying, “Health care went up 12 percent, therefore tuition is up,” she says. “The connection is not that direct.” The Corporation must also consider how much money is likely to come in from fund-raising and endowment returns. Finally, Brown has to avoid pricing itself out of the market.

One problem is that the higher the tuition, the more financial aid is likely to cost, unless family income goes up in turn. This makes budget planning a headache even without accounting for need-blind.

This fall when the Chronicle of Higher Education ranked the ten priciest U.S. colleges, Brown was the only Ivy listed. The report compared tuition and fees for freshmen, which at Brown total $30,120, but the numbers are misleading. When room and board are added to the equation, for example, Brown becomes only the fourth-priciest among the Ivies.

In any case, Howitt notes that no family’s bill covers the entire cost of a Brown education. “Our costs are going to go up,” she says, “by more than we could ever raise tuition.”

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January / February 2004