The High Cost of Learning

The University of Virginia is one of the nation’s top institutions of higher learning. Establishing credibility was a process, however, not a given—even with Thomas Jefferson as its founder. UVa went through very real growing pains, as Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos make clear in their new book Rot, Riot, and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University that Changed America. In the following piece, coathor Carlos Santos takes on an issue at the center of higher learning—tuition—and illustrates how Edgar Allan Poe’s folks didn’t have it any better than your folks…

Much has changed at the University of Virginia in the past 185 years, but not tuition shock—that feeling of parental despair and pain over the cost of a college education.  UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan recently released some sticker-shock news. She announced changes to the nationally recognized AccessUVa financial-aid program, reverting back to loans versus outright grants. The adjustments will be phased in over a four-year period by class, beginning with the 2014-15 academic year. Sullivan says that “once fully implemented, this new approach will help the University moderate escalating program costs by about $6 million per year.”  But it won’t moderate parental costs at all, of course.

Two centuries ago, tuition shock also struck Edgar Allan Poe’s foster father. Poe arrived at UVa in 1826. He traveled 60 miles from Richmond by horseback over rough roads and ragged paths to Charlottesville, a village of about 9,000 white people and 11,500 black slaves. The town was a bustling epicenter of an otherwise sleepy frontier. The scream of sawmills split the air filled with the pungent smell of smoke, distilleries and tanneries. Just outside the town was the state’s new university erected in “a poor old turned out field.”

Poe had traveled to the backwater town to get an education at the behest of his foster father, John Allan, who saw educating his foster son as a boost up the social ladder for himself. But Allan was tight with his money and he was stunned by the cost of tuition: $50 for the first class, $60 for two, $75 for three. Most students took three classes. Allan allowed Poe, despite his foster’s son’s pleading, to take only two.

I think it’s safe to say that Allan, a self-made man, suffered tuition shock at the idea of paying $50—the equivalent of $1,000 today—for a single class.

The current tuition rate tallies in at about $1,000 per class too by the way. But at least a student in Jefferson’s time could get a bargain by taking two or three classes. Paying $75 for three classes would amount to only about $1,500 now or $500 per class—a steal by modern standards.

Tuition follows that famous if anonymous quote about the law of inflation: whatever goes up will go up some more. Sullivan, following that law, explains: “Since AccessUVa’s launch in 2004-05, institutional costs have increased from $11.5 million to more than $40 million. Most of this money comes from tuition. Today, a third of our students qualify for aid, compared with a fourth when the program started. We have known for some time that these rising costs were not sustainable, and the Board asked the administration in 2011 to evaluate the program.”

If tuition pain has not changed, everything else at the school has, and for the better.UVa’s first day of school was held in March of 1825. The 125 students who journeyed to Charlottesville by horse or carriage were all male, all white, came mostly from Virginia and for the most part were the rich and privileged sons of plantation owners.The only African Americans at the school were slaves, euphemistically known as servants, who cleaned students’ boots and bedding and served their meals. Women in the precincts were either the wives of professors or were prostitutes sneaking into Lawn rooms to entertain students.

The Lawn itself was rough, a terraced court of muddy red clay where pigs and dogs and slave children roamed unfettered. The smell of chimney smoke and latrines wafted through the air. Open fields and woods surrounded the university. Many of the students, who carried hair-trigger tempers to protect their upper class sense of honor, were prone to violence – to fighting, biting, stabbing, and dueling either with fellow students or townies. The student violence bolstered critics of Jefferson’s university who considered the university godless and a playground for the rich. Mr. Jefferson’s university – and all the revolutionary changes it brought to American higher education—was almost shuttered by the General Assembly in its early, wild years.

UVa is now one of the top “public Ivies” and the state’s flagship university. Over half of the almost 16,000 undergraduates who descended on Charlottesville on this fall to begin school are women, while about one-third hail from outside Virginia. African Americans make up 9.4 percent of the student body, Asians 11 percent, while Hispanic/Latino students account for 4.5 percent. Many of the students are attending the school based on their academic merit. Most were in the top 10 percent of their high school class. U.Va, with a total enrollment of 21,000—including graduate, law and medical students—will become a boisterous roil of diverse youth on that first day of school.

What would Jefferson—a futurist, a despiser of tradition for its own sake, but a man stuck in his own time and a slave owner—think walking the Lawn today?

Carlos Santos is the co-author, with Rex Bowman, of the just published Rot, Riot and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University that Changed America.