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NYU president: High tuition causes ‘unacceptable financial strain’

A view of Washington Square Park and a portion of the New York University campus in Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of NYU.)
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The new president of New York University proclaimed an attention-grabbing goal after taking office this year: He wants to rein in price hikes at one of the most expensive schools in the country.

NYU’s full charge is now about $66,600 a year for tuition, fees, room and board — without taking into account financial aid. A few schools charge more. At Columbia University, uptown from NYU in Manhattan, the list price is more than $68,000, according to the College Board. At Harvey Mudd College in Southern California, it is more than $69,000.

NYU President Andrew Hamilton said he wants to contain price increases.

“The plain fact is that tuition at NYU places an unacceptable financial strain on too many students,” Hamilton said in an inaugural address late last month. “NYU is not unique in that regard by any means, but we have been among the most conspicuous.”

The total cost of attendance, including books, travel and other expenses, can top $70,000 a year for those without financial aid.

Sticker price shock: Colleges are passing the $60,000 a year mark.

As a first step, Hamilton froze room and board charges for this academic year. Rates vary depending on the living situation, but the typical annual room and board price remains $17,578. New York is one of the most expensive cities in the country, a major driver of housing and meal prices for students at the Washington Square campus. But Hamilton hopes for creative approaches to limit future rate increases.

One idea to be tested is pairing juniors, seniors and graduate students with elderly residents at a nearby housing complex who have a spare bedroom — an inter-generational “home-stay” experiment that could cut housing costs in half for participants.

As a second step, Hamilton lowered a planned increase in tuition and fees. Instead of an increase of about 3.5 percent to 3.9 percent, which had been typical, the increase was 2.7 percent. That translates to tuition and fees this school year of $49,062.

Bottom line: The increase for NYU’s total cost of attendance this year was the lowest in more than 20 years.

“It’s important,” Hamilton said this week in a visit to The Washington Post. “I wanted very early on to identify areas at NYU that could not wait.”

Pricing policy was deemed urgent. Hamilton said concerns about affordability were “clouding” discussions about other pressing issues at the school. So he wanted to tackle them head-on.

NYU is also raising the minimum wage it pays working students, from $12 an hour this school year to $15 an hour by 2018-2019. In addition, the university is seeking to raise money for financial aid and to expand campus job opportunities for students. And it is studying proposals to limit meal and textbook expenses.

There are limits on what Hamilton can do. NYU has an endowment of about $3.5 billion and an enrollment of about 50,000 students. On a per-student basis, the endowment is relatively modest compared to those at other top private research universities. Like all universities, NYU has high personnel costs. On top of that comes the expense of operating a complex research and teaching enterprise in the city. As a result, the school relies heavily on tuition.

The average published price for tuition, fees, room and board at private colleges nationwide this year is $45,365, according to the College Board. But schools often discount their prices through financial aid. The average net price at private colleges is $26,100. National averages don’t account for regional differences in cost of living.

College costs rising faster than financial aid, report says

At NYU, about 57 percent of 25,000 undergraduates receive grants or scholarships from a variety of sources. That financial aid was worth, on average, more than $25,000 a year in the 2014-15 school year, according to federal data. About 22 percent of undergrads have enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell grants. The Pell share, a key measure of access for disadvantaged students, is relatively large for a private university.

Hamilton, a chemist, took the helm as NYU’s 16th president in January, after serving as vice chancellor at Oxford University (the senior executive position there) and as provost at Yale University. He’s been getting mileage in his first year on the job with jokes about how easy it is to get a ticket in New York to see Hamilton, the university president — not “Hamilton,” the megahit musical. Also, he notes, Andrew Hamilton became a president even though Alexander Hamilton didn’t.

The NYU chief succeeded John Sexton, a hard-charging and sometimes controversial president who expanded the university’s global reach with new degree-granting campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.

NYU grows outpost in Shanghai, with first class to graduate in 2017

In his inaugural speech on Sept. 25, Hamilton said he wants to focus on “refining” the university’s international academic network and ensuring it is aligned with the university’s standards. “In the near term, that means our focus should be less on further expansion and more on reaching the full potential of the exceptional global enterprise NYU has already built,” he said.

Hamilton said he also wants to strengthen science and engineering at NYU, which are not as well known as the university’s programs in social sciences. “A robust, productive, successful program in science and engineering – not, I repeat not, at the expense of the other disciplines – is one the hallmarks of a great university,” he said.

For NYU’s new chief, the challenge will be how to reconcile two big goals: Developing laboratory-intensive programs while keeping price increases to a minimum.