In 2006, Lehigh’s tuition was $33,470.
Fast forward 10 years, and that cost has risen by 50 percent.
On March 23, Pat Johnson, the vice president of finance and administration, sent an email to students and parents informing them of a 5 percent rise in tuition for the next academic year, from $47,920 to $50,320.
Johnson said the $2,400 increase will go toward funding several activities, including hiring new faculty, improving academic buildings and classrooms and expanding new programs like the Data X initiative. She said some of that money will also go into the financial aid budget.
Johnson said the cost of operation increased as a result of new labor laws and regulations related to compliance. The Affordable Care Act, enacted in 2010, defines a full-time employee as anyone who works more than 30 hours a week. Johnson said this increased the number of staff who receive health benefits from the university. She said a portion of the tuition money will go to providing these benefits to faculty and staff.
Johnson said the money will not go toward the Path to Prominence expansion plan because it’s too early in the planning process to start allocating funds to the initiative.
Five percent is the university’s largest tuition increase since 2008. Last year, tuition increased by 4.5 percent, and before that, it increased at a rate of approximately 3 percent for seven years.
Johnson said tuition increases were kept moderately low from 2013 to 2015 because trustees wanted to experiment to see whether the price attracted more applicants from middle-class families. Johnson said their plan didn’t work.
“When we were doing 3 percent increases, other schools were doing four and five,” Johnson said. “Now we’re kind of catching up a little bit.”
For example, Johnson heard Lafayette’s tuition is increasing by 4 percent next year, but she said Lafayette had been increasing by 4 percent during the years Lehigh had only been increasing by 3 percent.
Johnson said parents have contacted her to express their disapproval of the tuition hike.
Sophie Clowes, the mother of a first-year student, said parents have also taken to Facebook to talk about it in the “Lehigh University Parents and Families” group.
She said although some parents have justified the increase as a good investment, the majority are mad about it. Clowes said the parents who wrote in the Facebook group wanted to see improvements in residential buildings and dining halls before they gave more money to the university.
She also said parents expressed concerns about not being able to afford tuition, especially if it keeps increasing at this pace.
“A lot of families can just about afford to pay this, but it’s at a big sacrifice to them,” Clowes said.
In retrospect, she said the increase probably would have affected her decision to send her son to Lehigh. Clowes, a California resident, said she wants Lehigh to gain greater national recognition if she is going to pay over $50,000 in tuition each year.
“We live on the West Coast, and no one has heard of Lehigh,” Clowes said. “If our son comes back to work here, I’m not sure that Lehigh will get him through the door.”
Clowes said Lehigh should be pulling money from its endowment, which is approximately $1.2 billion, instead of placing more financial burden on families. However, Johnson said the university only has access to the spending rate each year, which she said is an average of 5 percent.
“Even though it looks like we have a lot, we don’t have a lot at our disposal,” Johnson said.
With the financial market projected to not do as well in coming years, Lehigh is considering reducing its spending policy. Johnson knows parents won’t be happy about the change, but she said the endowment money is supposed to last forever and needs to be protected.
Donald Outing, the vice president for equity and community, said his priority is making sure there’s enough money in the financial aid budget to offset the rise in tuition.
With the rising cost of college nationwide, Outing said Lehigh needs to be wary of following that national trend.
“Hopefully Lehigh or other institutions don’t price themselves out of these opportunities and become so financially cumbersome that we can’t even overcome it with financial aid and scholarships,” Outing said.
Johnson recognizes this possibility, and she said it is always a factor in the decision to raise tuition.
Although Johnson acknowledged Lehigh’s tuition is high, she encourages families to see the price tag as an investment.
“I think in Lehigh’s case especially it is very clear that a college education is well worth it as far as job placement and salary over the years,” Johnson said. “Even though this is a lot of money, you get your return. It’s a good investment.”
In terms of deciding whether the investment was worth it, Johnson thinks there are two ways students can measure that.
The first is whether your job after college is sufficient enough to pay for the cost of education. The second, harder to put a price tag on, is the amount of happiness your four years at Lehigh brought you.