Juneteenth discussion at Tufts misses elephant in room

Higher ed financing system another form of structural racism

TUFTS UNIVERSITY, like many elite private colleges and universities in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and its aftermath of protests and related soul searching about racism in America, jumped on to the Juneteenth celebration bandwagon.

To mark what is a new holiday for many at Tufts, the university decided to host a half day of various Zoom meetings with panel presentations and, for some sessions, open discussions.  Although I am retiring from my full time Tufts administrative and faculty role today after many years, I decided that it would be personally valuable to listen and learn from faculty, students, and school administrators who presented over the course of the day about issues connected to racism and anti-racism.

Not unexpected, a good deal of focus for the sessions was on the topic of how to make Tufts anti-racist, and how best to advance aims tied to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

There was an outpouring of comments on the need to advance structural diversity in the composition of faculty and students. The day’s conversations also included a fair amount of discussion on the need to make curricula more anti-racist. And there was also some discussion of the need for creating inclusive environments, which has come to mean, at least in part, whether a school’s institutional climate is supportive and welcoming to a diverse cohort of people.

I certainly appreciated the content and quality of the comments that were made. But what surprised me about the day was the near absence of any discussion of the high cost of tuition at Tufts and the debt issues arising from it.  The current total cost for a bachelor’s degree over four years is just under $320,000—about $240,000 of it from tuition. For a Tufts medical student, the total cost of attendance is estimated to be slightly over $400,000 (about $260,000 from tuition) and for someone pursuing a masters in public health degree—the area where I have taught primarily—total program tuition is nearly $75,000.

The sad reality is that unrelenting tuition increases to attend higher education in the US, especially at private schools, accompanied by insufficient scholarship and grant support, has resulted in about $1.6 trillion in outstanding student loan debt for US students. And with black women followed by black men bearing the largest burden of student debt of any racial or ethnic group, it appears that the higher ed financing system is just another form of structural racism.

On average, the student debt load of African-Americans grows much faster after obtaining a bachelor’s degree than whites. According to a 2016 study, it starts at an average of $23,400 at graduation, and grows to about $53,000 four years later, a level about twice that of their white counterparts. For black graduate students nationally, their median debt is about 50 percent higher than whites.

For Tufts undergrads, the numbers work this way:

Median family income of undergrads is about $225,000 a year, and about 64 percent of students come from the top 10 percent of income households.

About 40 percent of students get some sort of financial aid package, with students from poorer families getting more in the form of grants and scholarships. But the average Tufts student is still asked to come up with about $32,000—from either savings, student employment, or by taking on debt. While lower income students will be expected to come up with less, African-American students on average come from families which have about one-tenth the median wealth of white households in the US (Hispanics one-eighth), so their expected contribution will still likely lead to a higher loan burden at graduation.

While I don’t have debt statistics for graduating students by race at Tufts, the Tufts Observer reported this past February that the average indebtedness of the 2018 graduating class at Tufts was just over $28,000.

Somehow when the discussion focused on making Tufts anti-racist, any talk of this financial challenge was missing. It seems as if the common belief is that if we can just have more people of color enrolled or hired as faculty at Tufts, make the curriculum more responsive in terms of teaching about racism, and make the environment at Tufts welcoming to all, that we will become an anti-racist university.

Why is it that the financial cost of an education seemed to significantly escape the discussion of how to make Tufts anti-racist?

Meet the Author

Paul A. Hattis

Associate professor, Tufts University Medical School
I appreciate that it is very uncomfortable for higher ed leaders and faculty to talk about high tuition at a time when the university faces significant operating deficits from COVID-19 and jobs are on the line. I also understand that Tufts is not unique, that it is part of a much larger broken higher education funding system.

But it will be almost impossible for any college or university to be anti-racist when it continues to live primarily by the reality that paid lives matter the most.