Tuition Increases, Then and Now

In 1978, Tufts University’s president, Jean Mayer, apologized for the “difficult burden” that a tuition increase of $350 would place on students and their families. In a letter sent to students’ parents almost exactly 35 years ago, Mr. Mayer explained that expenses were continuing to rise, and that “every possible avenue of restraining costs” had already been explored.

Any parent with a child in college now will probably find the letter, recently obtained by The Chronicle, strikingly familiar, as tuition continues to jump every year—often accompanied by very apologetic, very sincere letters from college presidents.

But how comparable are 1978 and today when it comes to cost? The Chronicle’s tuition & fees database shows that tuition at Tufts rose by about $1,360 from 2010 to 2011. Adjusting for inflation, the $350 increase in 1978 comes to a similar number, about $1,200. Not so different, then.

However, the total tuition price tells a different story: In 1978 a year’s worth of tuition cost a student about $15,524 in today’s dollars. In 2011, Tufts students paid $42,962.

Don’t forget that those numbers do not include living expenses. The letter doesn’t offer a total cost for room and board, but the 1978 increase was $165 for both, or $570 adjusted for inflation. In this respect, modern-day Tufts fares a little better. From 2010 to 2011, the reported room-and-board cost increased by only $244. A relief, no doubt, to all the parents who may soon be receiving letters of their own for the 2013-14 school year.

But Faith Michaels, the student who received the original letter and the third in a “four-generation Tufts family,” has no regrets. Her grandparents met on the campus, her mother went there, and her son graduated from Tufts two years ago. She says that she and other students protested the day that tuition topped $5,000. Compared to now, she says, “Those were the days!”

The full text reads as follows:

February 27, 1978

To the Parents of Undergraduate Students:

Last Saturday, February 25, the Board of Trustees of Tufts College approved the 1978-79 budget for the University. The final budget was developed only after prolonged and intensive review and adoption of every possible avenue of restraining costs without compromising the quality of our educational programs. Despite our best efforts, however, expenses continue to rise. I therefore must tell you, with very real regret, that Tufts is forced to increase its tuition fee by $350, to a total of $4,500, for 1978-79. Increases of $80 on board and $85 on room were also adopted.

As a parent of a son about to enter college, and of another in graduate school, I am very keenly aware, personally as well as in my capacity as President, that these additional costs place a difficult burden on our students and their families. While they are of the same order of magnitude as those imposed by other colleges and universities, I sincerely wish, however, that Tufts had been able to avoid them. You can be assured that we shall continue to try to offer to your daughters and sons the very best education possible.

Sincerely yours,

Jean Mayer

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