OPINION | Expensive tuition remains largest barrier to a diverse Tulane

Zachary Schultz, Contributing Writer

In the past decade, Tulane University has earned high marks across numerous categories — from engagement in community service to having the happiest students — a position which has earned it national recognition as one of the best universities in the nation. Tulane has also recently championed its own increase in diversity, citing 24% students of color in the class of 2024, up from years past. But among those categories placing Tulane apart from other colleges and universities, none stands to impact the makeup of Tulane’s undergraduate population more than its position as one of the most expensive universities in the United States. 

In 2020, Tulane was ranked the 14th most expensive university in the U.S. in terms of tuition, beat out for the number-one spot by just over $5,000 more per year. The exuberant cost of attendance at Tulane presents a solid economic barrier in place of recent efforts to make the student population more diverse. Data reflects that 82.2% of Black students seeking their bachelor’s degree at a private, nonprofit university take on federal student loan debt at a rate much higher than that taken by their non-Black contemporaries. In addition, Black students default at higher rates as well, a rate five times that of white students seeking the same degree.

Despite the university’s historic struggle with discrimination, Tulane has made some strides in recent years to increase diversity. This summer, Tulane President Michael Fitts announced in a June 12, 2020, email to the Tulane community: “We cannot simply state that we are against racism; we must endeavor to be actively anti-racist.” This declaration was accompanied by a host of new measures aimed at diversifying the student population and bolstering the university’s racial education. 

Fitts announced that $2.5 million in funds would be dedicated “to further the goals of the resolution” proposed by the Les Griots Violets — a Black-led, all-female student organization, whose mission is to establish a more inclusive, equitable environment at Tulane — to fund Black-led student organizations on campus. Among these measures, Fitts and his wife, Renée Sobel, established an annual scholarship awarding $100,000 to “students who demonstrate leadership in racial equity and justice or diversity initiatives at Tulane or their high school.” 

On Nov. 12, 2020, Fitts announced a separate initiative — “The Louisiana Promise” — forming a new scholarship program, taking effect for fall of 2021, “to make higher education more accessible to Louisiana students” admitted to Tulane. This initiative has multiple components, and in addition to making a Tulane degree affordable for Louisiana students, establishes a center to prepare New Orleans middle and high school students for success at Tulane. 

Louisiana residents attending Tulane also have another avenue for earning their degree without taking on crushing student loan debt: the Legislative Scholarship. Pursuant to this program, Tulane gifts each legislator in the state House and Senate with one of these coveted scholarships each year. In turn, each legislator chooses a qualified candidate from within the state — usually from within the district the legislator represents — to give the scholarship to, which covers the full tuition cost for that year. Of course, since the legislator is given virtual carte blanche with respect to whom to give their scholarship, there is no method of ensuring that the nominated student is one whose financial situation is such that attending Tulane would otherwise be impossible. Nonetheless, it is still a valuable program for ensuring that some Louisiana students are able to attend Tulane without taking on student loans.

The recent measures Tulane has taken toward fostering an equitable environment on campus are encouraging, but there is still much work left to be done. That is, these measures, while laudable, have not transformed Tulane into a diverse campus overnight. It is perhaps well to ask, then, what more the administration can do to make a Tulane diploma more accessible to low-to-middle-income people of color. Of course, one might address the $59,000 elephant in the room and argue that the university should lower its sticker price. The thought of having to come up with the funds for an annual tuition of this magnitude can deter potential students whose parents aren’t multimillionaires from seeking admission in a heartbeat. However, some argue that this would devalue the Tulane diploma for all those who have paid the high price for attendance in the past, as well as distancing Tulane from the Ivy League universities it has attempted to emulate.

As it stands, most Americans cannot afford college in general, much less one of the most expensive universities in the nation. Perhaps, then, Tulane could dip into its $70 million “auxiliary enterprises” budget and reduce the cost for those whose economic position would make attending Tulane impossible. Alternatively, the administration could make use of the over $1.7 billion in net assets the university possessed as of 2019. Whatever path is chosen, it is clear that Tulane has the means to make its educational offerings more accessible to students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. 

The reality of promoting and fostering diversity on a college campus is that there is no clear quick fix. Like most universities of its caliber, Tulane places an obsessive emphasis on maintaining and improving its public image. However, given the university’s past discrimination against Black applicants, that objective cannot be met until Tulane creates a more diverse student population, as it will continue to struggle with reconciling its current values with its past conduct. Therefore, it is in the administration’s best interests to pioneer the movement for accessible college, in particular for communities which struggle the most to finance their degrees, and the time to act is now.

Art by Gabe Darley, Senior Staff Artist.