The Jig Is Up: Amherst Needs To Lower Its Tuition

Raising skepticism about the increasingly-expensive costs of elite, private universities, Assistant Opinion Editor Stacey Zhang ’26 considers whether Amherst should lower its tuition.

On March 7, we were informed that the college has increased comprehensive fees (including tuition, room, and board) by almost $4,000 the next year to $84,210, a 4.9 percent increase from the fees of the current year. In the past ten years, the college has, on average, increased the tuition by 4 percent each year, pacing more than twice the inflation rate. Many other elite private universities across the United States have driven their prices up by similar degrees, much higher than tuition at similarly prestigious, international institutions. I’ll point out the obvious: this is absurd. Tuition at Amherst must be lowered to help to make a liberal arts education truly accessible and desirable to all.

High tuition is often justified as a form of “rich tax” that allows the college to essentially request funds from its top 1 percenters and use it to fund financial aid and student services. As a result, tuition increases could seem trivial for financial-aid students with the same expected financial contribution, perhaps even beneficial for the student experience at Amherst.

However, we should be suspicious of the priorities that are fueling rising tuition. While tuition increases significantly outpace inflation, has student financial needs at Amherst seen significant changes in recent years? Where are the additional costs being funneled to?

I don’t have an answer, but the high-tuition phenomenon is not uncommon among American elite universities and is widely explained by the arms race of prestige pricing among elite colleges (to increase demand for an education by treating it as a luxury good) and an ever-expanding administrative apparatus. The former continues to concentrate resources and prestige to elite universities away from public universities and trade schools, while increasing demand for an elite education by treating it as a luxury good.  The latter shifts American universities to look increasingly like corporations guided by market forces rather than a place of education and scholarship. With shifting focus to investment in administration and infrastructure, colleges could end up needing to divert funds (such as faculty salaries) from other areas to support the unending need to build newer makerspaces or further complicate its branching trees of administrative structure. While Amherst's specific spending breakdown is not available (in contrast to public institutions), it's plausible that Amherst shares many of these practices that continue to drive its tuition up.

At the same time, lowering tuition at Amherst can help better the American higher education landscape. By lowering tuition, Amherst can bring awareness to the problematic pricing of American universities, help halt an arms race of prestige pricing, shift the culture around college education and hiring practices, and call for more federal funding into education. From international need-blind admissions to stopping legacy admissions, Amherst is not unfamiliar with pioneering new practices in higher education to make a good liberal arts education accessible to all.

Beside the financial problems tuition costs breed, the astronomical sticker price of college impacts students’ relationship with and expectations of their education, contributing to the contraction of enrollment in humanities. Personally, I’m a greedy shopper of the course catalog — whether it be English, History, Anthropology, or Environmental Studies, many departments have a place on my saved schedules. However, as I began to seriously plan my schedule last semester, some subtle guilt always weighed my tuition against my compulsion to take more humanities courses. Just maybe, reading García Márquez or Nabokov would not be worth the Amherst price tag? I’m fully aware that a college course goes far beyond a book club, but perhaps my simplified intuitions reflect larger student anxieties about the humanities.

Historian Benjamin Schmidt claims that the plunge in humanities enrollment “seems not to reflect a sudden decline of interest in the humanities.” Instead, with job insecurity after the financial crisis and high tuition costs, students can only justify such educational expenses as financial investments, and expect matching returns from their careers.

Thus, it’s a paradox for a liberal arts college like Amherst to ask for a whopping $84,210 dollars in tuition. Amherst prides itself with a rich liberal arts tradition (opposing vocational training) and a racially and socioeconomically diverse student body. However, at the same time, students from less than upper-class backgrounds are incentivized toward spending their time in classes and internships that they believe yield more financial returns. Amherst’s open curriculum can also be further damaged as no distribution requirements exist to prevent students from swarming to more career-specific courses and specializations.

Financial aid does not seem to completely close the financial gap for many students either. Anecdotally, there are many students at Amherst and other institutions, like Zoe Callan ’25, whose financial aid packages changed during their four years and were forced to resort to student loans or transfering. Work-study requirements of financial aid packages create additional burdens for low-income students navigating through college. The uncertainty of changing financial aid packages alone can dissuade students from pursuing a private university compared to an in-state school. Meanwhile, middle-class families find themselves stuck awkwardly in the dilemma of “too rich for aid, too poor for tuition” at private universities. Many more lower-income students were turned away before the college application process even started and saw high tuitions at private universities as completely out of reach. Many private institutions attract students of lower socioeconomic status by focusing its recruitment efforts in select urban poor communities or schools, while only impressing poor rural students as highly inaccessible luxuries. The cost of high sticker-price tuition does not just dissuade students away from humanities, but also creates distressing and long-lasting impacts on the financial, social, and academic lives of many students.

But, is it possible for private universities to maintain their high-level operations while cutting student fees? St. John's College, a liberal arts college known for its Great Books curriculum, responded in the affirmative. Citing the problems of prestige pricing of elite universities, St. John's announced in 2018 that it would slash its tuition from $53,000 to $35,000,  while supplementing its financial vitality using donation campaigns. A bold financial move, St. John’s has seen success from increased donations, applications, yield and general financial stability. While Amherst and many other colleges are still recovering from the pandemic, there are reasons for us to believe that lowering tuition could be feasible and beneficial for Amherst if it so willed.

At the same time, perhaps American elite universities do not need to operate the way they always operated. With impending budget cuts, Amherst administration and individual departments will have to identify waste in their spending and identify the core missions that they value and commit to funding. Just perhaps, we don't need $300 trivia prizes or pay an administrator triple the salary of a tenured professor.

Despite many efforts to aid its less privileged students, Amherst still has an imperative to investigate its increasing fees to help stymie the pricing practices and spending trends of elite universities. Amherst has this imperative, not because of a romantic imagination of its utopian liberal arts identity, but because lowering the tuition would not only make an Amherst education more accessible, but would encourage transformations in higher education beyond Amherst. Wouldn’t this be a real act of leadership that “enlightens the lands”?