Where Should Our Money Go?

On Friday, March 5, President Biddy Martin announced that the Board of Trustees voted to set the comprehensive fee for the 2021-22 school year at $76,800, representing a 1.2 percent increase over this year’s comprehensive fee. The Board also approved the elimination of the Residential Life fee and the Campus Center fee while maintaining the increase.

Although annual tuition increases are not unusual at colleges and universities throughout the country, this year’s increase invites a little more controversy given the impact that the pandemic has posed upon both Amherst families and the college itself. 

Last semester, our rival Williams College lowered both its comprehensive fee and its expected parental contribution for students on financial aid by 15 percent. The decision reflected the reduction of student activities that could take place as a result of the pandemic as well as the financial difficulties faced by students and their families as a result of the pandemic. Many other wealthy universities, like Princeton or Stanford, have opted for smaller tuition decreases or are simply holding tuition steady rather than making their usual annual price increases.  

Amherst has not done so this year and will not be doing so next year. Martin anticipated student and parent ire by preemptively defending the decision: “Amherst spends well over $100,000 a year to educate each individual student. Because of that investment, the comprehensive fee is a discounted price for every one of our students, regardless of financial circumstance.” One could argue that a college with the tenth highest endowment-per-student could and should use that money to increase affordability during an international pandemic and its accompanying recession, but before we make any suggestions, it is only fair to recognize where the administration is currently succeeding in providing pandemic resources. 

In an email sent out Tuesday afternoon, Martin wrote of some areas in which the rules had already begun to relax and other areas in which the administration hopes to grant students more freedom over the course of the semester. She noted food and alcohol delivery to campus, access to other students’ dorm buildings and all of the activities promoted through the Student Activities Instagram account as current changes. She also highlighted organized off-campus activities for on-campus students, dedicated on-campus social spaces and increased availability of club and intercollegiate athletic activities and equipment as changes to come in the near future.

Specifically, the college has turned indoor spaces such as the Powerhouse and the parts of the LeFrak Gym into study and lounge spaces that students can take advantage of. Yoga classes, trivia nights and other school sponsored activities have been taking place, reviving and strengthening the sense of community that can be easily lost during a pandemic. 

However, having a good college experience is impossible if students and their families are struggling to afford basic necessities. The college has again made a solid start here — a new Student Emergency Fund has been established, specifically targeting pandemic-related needs including housing, food insecurity and emergency travel. But students need more resources than just emergency resources. 

The call for open educational resources published in this issue is one seemingly small change the college could make that would have a massive impact on the way that students choose classes and participate in them after joining. What families want to see in order to justify a steadily increasing tuition is a steadily increasing investment in their students. Another easy short-term fix would be making food delivery more accessible for students on campus. Considering that grocery deliveries are only allowed from Whole Foods right now, the college should create a larger allowance for students on financial aid to order groceries, as many students lack Amazon Prime subscriptions and the $60 gift cards for students on financial aid (which are currently up for debate in AAS) would cover less than two grocery deliveries from Whole Foods. Giving students more money to order food or groceries from off campus would not only help students better enjoy their experience but also strengthen the economy of our local town which relies heavily on college business.

Not only is it important that the college make resources available, but clearly communicating new resources and making them easy to access is equally essential. A clear example from this week is the choice to email students about upcoming events and changes via the President’s Office rather than the Daily Mammoth, which usually shares more minor changes and opportunities. Informing students about the resources the college is willing to make available would be easier if those resources were displayed as prominently as the upcoming Covid regulation changes. Though we’re hesitant to suggest sending more emails to the student body and their families, it may be helpful to have a dedicated email account or other communication platform to share financial resource information with the whole of the college and remind them of the resources that are available with some regularity. That way, students and families who skim or even ignore daily emails from the college or its organizations would be alerted that they needed to pay attention.

The college should also regularly evaluate students’ feedback to the community building events they have been hosting such as Zoom trivia nights in order to make sure that students are actually benefiting from them. The feedback form linked in the college’s most recent email on “Spring Changes” is a great start to the more inclusive and productive dialogue between students and administration that The Student and many other groups in the community have consistently advocated for. 

Though students on campus have begun to benefit from college spending and creativity in enjoying their time at Amherst, students off campus are as disconnected as ever. One simple and affordable thing the college could do to remind off-campus students of their community is invest in more care packages for students who are studying remotely to deepen their emotional connections to campus, especially in tandem with on-campus community activities like Fall Fest last semester, or planned sports and arts events this semester. Letters from the college, like those sent in the last care package, are relatively easy to write but can be deeply meaningful to students who feel isolated and remote from campus culture. 

In the end, the financial decisions that the college makes should center around delivering quality education, a sense of community and support for individual growth to all students, regardless of where they are located. We’re all here because we’re confident that an Amherst education is worth the price, but a tuition increase amidst a crisis comes with a responsibility to prove us right and a need for accountability in terms of meaningful and effective resource allocation. We expect the college to live up to its promises, and having seen the great strides it is already making, we’re confident that it will.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 9; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 5)