Today marks the passage of two-thirds of the academic year at Pennsylvania's Albright College.
Why is that significant? Because today, Albright administrators say, student tuition dollars, which cover 66 percent of the annual cost of a student's undergraduate education, run out (symbolically, that is) -- and other revenue sources kick in.
Albright’s first annual “Tuition Ran Out Day” is designed to strengthen student awareness of the fact that donors are subsidizing their education and to drive home to students the point that private college administrators so often make when they're criticized for escalating tuition prices : that the cost of tuition, even as it rises, still doesn’t come close to reflecting the true cost of education, borne by so many others. “We want to focus on the importance of giving ... so that when students leave here they understand the importance of philanthropy and giving back to their own alma mater,” said Karen M. Fitzgerald, executive director of alumni programs and services at the Pennsylvania liberal arts college.
To focus student attention on the cost of running the college, Albright is displaying 80 giant price tags around the Reading, Pa., campus today, including six big enough to cover the side of a building, said Michelle Hahn, director of the Fund for Albright. Among the dollar values to be posted on the bright blue and yellow tags: $222,128 for water and sewer for a year, $275 for a desk with chair, $529.99 for a Ping-Pong table, $875 for a projection screen, $3,194.95 for the pool lane lines, $17.25 million in scholarships awarded this year, and $1,239.93 for a security phone.
Faculty will also wear buttons commemorating the day, and are being asked to contribute to the educational effort with the help of a guide to Frequently Asked Questions provided by the college. Among them: “How do I respond when someone says ‘tuition is too expensive?’ ” (The official answer: “Tuition actually covers just 66 percent of the real cost to attend Albright. It is important to educate the entire campus community on the true costs of operating Albright. On Tuition Ran Out Day, blue helium balloons mark the areas where price tags of various campus items are displayed. Some of the items are more costly than one might think.”)
Fitzgerald and Hahn stressed that the day is not meant in any way to belittle the amount students are contributing -- the comprehensive tuition fee is set at $26,620 for full-time undergraduates this academic year  at Albright, where the rate of tuition increases has stayed steady at around 5 percent for the past few years. The point, rather, is to educate students about the importance of giving and the economics of the college, which Hahn said many students mistakenly believe is “actually making money.”
“Our hope and goal is to foster communication and a connection between students and faculty, and [to emphasize] how important donations are to keep the cost of tuition down," said Fitzgerald. "Just to keep it at what it is now is challenging. If we don’t have the support of revenue sources and donors, tuition is just going to keep going up.”
The college's average alumni giving rate is, according to Albright data, 23.1 percent. Philanthropy covers 8 percent of the college's costs, with 26 percent coming from other revenue sources, including interest on endowment. The balance, of course, is covered by tuition.
“It’s a gimmicky thing, but anything that promotes transparency is a positive development,” said Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability & Productivity , in Washington, and a member of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education,  which had harsh words for rising tuition prices in its final report. “It could do no harm and it could very well be a very good thing to let students know what’s going on, but I wish colleges would go a couple steps further -- all colleges -- to give full financial information and vary their prices based on student use of services a little more than they do.”
Vedder said while college leaders typically brag about their bargain rates by citing operational costs that exceed tuition revenue by a third to a half, Albright’s approach goes a step further than any other he’s heard of. “The idea’s kind of a neat one, in some ways.”