The Big Stretch

By Emily Gold Boutilier / May / June 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Everyone knows by now that the economic downturn of the past few years has squeezed the University’s budget. Endowment performance is off, for example, and the Simmons administration has frozen all nonfaculty hires. But how are students feeling the sting?

Tuition is up, of course, the cost of travel to and from home is higher, and textbooks are so expensive that students may be starting to think twice about taking courses with pricey reading lists.

Nowhere is the impact of the economy more evident than at the Office of Financial Aid. With many family incomes down or stagnant, students have begun asking for more help. This year the average scholarship for a returning financial-aid student was $500 higher than predicted, says Michael Bartini, director of financial aid. His office ran $2.6 million over budget this year, partly as a result of increased need among students already on aid and partly because a bigger-than-usual freshman class had more students needing assistance.

If the economy doesn’t improve, things could get worse. There has been a 6 percent increase in applications for freshman aid, in part due to the economy and in part because next fall’s incoming class is Brown’s first to be accepted need-blind. Among returning financial-aid students Bartini expects the average family’s ability to pay to either remain flat or drop, even as the cost of a Brown education rises by more than 4 percent. As a result, the financial aid budget is set to go up 15 percent next year, Bartini says.

Brown will be sharing some of the burden with students. The average loan was $3,600 this year, and most returning financial-aid students will see their loan go up by $500 (the neediest will absorb a $250 increase).

Predictably, the loan increase has angered some students. “An increase at a time when we most need a decrease is burdensome and troubling,” says Brady Dunklee ’03 of Students on Financial Aid. “We understand that Brown is having economic difficulties as well. But they’re far better equipped to absorb those difficulties than we are.”

Bartini, however, believes the increase, while not desirable, is unavoidable, and will not overburden the 40 percent of Brown students who receive financial aid.

Bartini’s office calculates the amount of that aid by estimating how much a family can afford to pay—$12,900 on average—then subtracting that figure from Brown’s yearly cost. The remainder is met with a package of grants, loans, and work-study jobs. For 2002–03 the cost of a year at Brown was around $38,500—including tuition, fees, room and board, and such miscellaneous expenses as travel to and from home.

The cost of textbooks, which is also factored into the package, has lately weighed heavily on the mind of Dean of the College Paul Armstrong. At a meeting with students this semester he was shocked to hear that some are choosing courses based on the cost of the books. “That’s horrendous,” Armstrong says.

In theory it shouldn’t be an issue: the yearly financial-aid award includes a $1,000 books allowance. Students who need more can ask for an increase, but books for most students average $600 to $800 a year, according to Brown Bookstore Director Lawrence Carr.

Still, students on financial aid don’t get a $1,000 check from Brown; their family’s bill is simply offset by that amount. “Before my first paycheck this semester,” says Dunklee, “I was getting concerned that I’d have to choose between books and food. Many people, including myself, would not ask our parents for money for food or textbooks. It’s a matter of self-respect, and also necessity.”

Last semester Patricia Aguilo ’05, whose father lost his job as a systems analyst more than a year ago, was weighing two courses. In one the books totaled $150; in the other the required readings were available free online. Because she liked both courses equally, the choice was easy—although she insists that the price of books alone would not stop her from taking a course that was important to her.

Even Carr gets sticker shock from the books in his store. He says the average cost of a new textbook is $30.06—up 5 percent from last year—and it’s not that unusual to see a new book priced at $125. “A medical book can be over $200,” he says. To keep costs down, he tries to stock used books, which are discounted 25 percent and which students can sell back at the end of the term. For example, a student can buy a used $100 textbook for $75, and the bookstore will buy it back for $50 as long as Carr knows it will be assigned again the next semester. Total student cost: $25.

Publishers discourage used-book sales by producing new editions or linking new books to password-protected Web sites with extra material. Sometimes the bookstore simply can’t find enough copies of an older, cheaper edition. Armstrong always factors in the cost of books when drafting his syllabus, though, and has been asking other professors to do the same. “This is not a level playing field,” he says.

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May / June 2003