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Students share ideas on college spending and cost reduction

Tuition revenue helps pay for benefits like library services. Photos by Jen Ramos.

Although this fall’s 4.5 percent tuition increase has been hard for some, students have said they wouldn’t mind the annual increase if they experienced direct benefits, like better facilities and more individual time with professors.

Others have suggested that fellow students should look for ways to reduce the College’s costs by being conscious of waste, although a college officer pointed out that waste diversion alone won’t allay future tuition increases.

The recent tuition increase isn’t exactly news to Chloe Dahl, a senior PLEA major. She’s watched the tuition go up every year that she’s been here.

“We always get that letter at the end of the year that says what the increase is going to be. And it’s like, ‘Are you serious? We’re already paying this amount of money,’” Dahl said. “How can they expect everyone to pay a little more when they’ve already got things around campus that already aren’t working perfectly for students?”

Tuition revenue also helps pay for the replacement of outdated or broken science lab equipment.

Higher tuition rates have never been an issue for Dahl and her family, but Dahl has seen fellow students struggle.

“I think if we would see a lot more changes happen around campus that would benefit us more directly, people might be a little more willing to pay the changes,” Dahl said.

Keeley Driscoll, a senior business economics major, has also experienced the regular tuition increases, but she was especially affected by the most recent one. When she reviewed her 2011-2012 financial aid package, she was shocked.

“I had to really go to the M Center and say, ‘I won’t be able to afford Mills for my senior year if I don’t receive the funding that I was promised as a first-year student,” Driscoll said.

Everything eventually worked out, but Driscoll noticed that while the tuition increases each year, the financial aid offers decrease.

“Financial aid is the only reason why I was able to come to Mills in the first place,” Driscoll said. “I wanted to come to Mills, but it was also the school that offered me the highest percentage in terms of the tuition. Otherwise, I would have gone to a state school where I wouldn’t have a huge tuition. It would be much more affordable, but then there’s the price of being one of 300 in a class instead of being one of 25.”

Driscoll’s story numbers among many. According to the College’s website, 97 percent of all undergraduates received financial aid in the last academic year. Total financial aid amounted to $32 million, of which Mills funded $16 million.

Jamie Nickel, Interim Vice President for Finance and Treasurer, told the Associated Students of Mills College (ASMC) in March that the high student financial aid discount rate makes it harder for Mills to provide a quality education on less money, hence the tuition increase.

Dr. Sandra Greer, Provost and Dean of the Faculty, named increased academic costs partially paid for by the tuition increase that might directly affect students. Revenue from the tuition increase helps pay for promoted faculty members’ salary increases, increased library costs (books, subscriptions and online services) and scientific lab equipment that needs replacing –– among other improvements around campus.

Nickel writes in a recent e-mail that costs go up each year for things the College doesn’t have much control over: insurance, required facilities, IT maintenance and other regulatory compliance. Other increased college costs come from debt issued for new building construction, like the Natural Science (NSB) and Graduate School of Business (GSB) buildings.

“We have tried very hard to keep controllable costs down,” Nickel writes. “Staff and faculty went two years without any cost of living increase to their salaries. Departmental discretionary budgets have remained flat or even decreased over recent years. We’ve renegotiated contracts and gone to less expensive vendors where possible.”

College revenue sources, like endowment payout, are down because of the market. Gifts and conference rental revenue is flat, Nickel writes.

“Then our only option is to try to increase revenue from students. Universally, costs increase over time for everything.  Tuition is no different,” Nickel said.

Waste diversion and powering down help reduce costs.

Students like Driscoll have a few ideas for what they’d like their extra tuition dollars to pay for.

“If I’m going to pay more tuition,” Driscoll said, “I would like to see smaller class sizes and more one-on-one work with faculty and staff. But with this increase in tuition, I feel like class sizes have also increased. It’s a little upsetting because that’s another reason I came to Mills — the class sizes and being able to have a name and be a person and not just a student. If the tuition were to increase even more, I would want class sizes to return to the way they were my first and second year, which were smaller.”

Driscoll would also like to see better campus facilities.

“Besides NSB and GSB, I feel like facilities are kind of outdated. Our pool could definitely be redone. Our gym, our locker rooms. I’m a dancer, so I feel our dance studios could be redone,” Driscoll said. “Our library is a big thing. I’ve gone to other schools where their libraries are immaculate. They’re beautiful. People want to go there. And I don’t want to go the Mills library because it’s so dark and dingy. Uninviting.”

Ana Sanchez, a senior ethnic studies major, said it seems like the College is spending money in the wrong places.

“I know that there’s all these big screen TVs, like in Cowell. The money’s not being spent on the students directly. It’s spent on these unnecessary items,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said she can understand, though, the poor economic reality and that the students could help the situation in their own way.

“I always go back to the amount of waste and the amount of electricity used on campus,” Sanchez said. Students might want to be conscious of ways to reduce energy costs when using a computer or flipping on the lights. “Maybe that could be deducted from our tuition in some way.”

Sanchez has recognized that the faculty has tried to relieve the burden of paying for college. “We’ll have to purchase books,” she said, “and they’ll do that thing where we purchase a reader instead. So it’s all in one place, and you won’t have to buy six books. You just pay for the reader. But it’s still expensive.”

Ana Reidy, a senior public policy and economics major, said that the tuition increase is hard, but it’s necessary given the economy.

“I make a challenge,” Reidy writes in an e-mail, “to not only the College, but students, to think realistically about what services are most important, what can we do away with, how can we use resources more efficiently and how, as students, can we save our institution money (like saving electricity, saving on printing, etc).”

Waste diversion does yield net savings, said Linda Zitzner, Assistant Vice President of Facilities, Auxiliaries and Campus Planning, but will not, by itself, allay future tuition increases.

“Mills still has to pay for the waste to be hauled,” Zitzner writes, “albeit at a lower rate than the landfill stream. We also have to purchase biobags which are more expensive than regular bags.”

Zitzner writes that it’s better to look at the campus holistically from a sustainability and cost reduction perspective. In addition to savings from waste diversion, there are energy and water savings.

“We only call for Power Down Days when PG&E mandates it, but this should be a part of our culture. Electricity, gas and water usage contribute significantly to the cost of running the campus and to our overall green house gas emissions,” she writes.

The college is always exploring ways to reduce usage.

“For example, starting in 2009, all irrigation was from non-potable water, which resulted in tremendous savings,” Zitzner writes. “We work very hard to contain costs and are always open to suggestions and input from all Mills constituencies.”


Jamie Nickel asks the student community to stay tuned on how to give input on college funding priorities.

Meanwhile, students can participate in ASMC. Last year, the college solicited student feedback at ASMC meetings on matters like whether or not to increase the undergraduate ASMC fee. Nickel also explained and fielded questions about the 4.5 percent tuition increase at one of the ASMC meetings.

The first full board ASMC meeting is Monday, September 26. For more info, email