Aman ’20: Why is Brown’s room and board so expensive?

On Apr. 17, The Herald published spring poll results that found many students report stealing regularly from Brown eateries. When asked to explain their behavior, students expressed the belief that stealing helped them derive more  of the value of their meal plans. For example, one student explained, “If I take one more meal for the week, I really don’t think that’s going over the value of my plan, considering how much I’m paying Brown.” This feeling is understandable, given that a meal credit can cost anywhere from $9 to $20, depending on the meal plan. Like the plans offered by Brown University Dining Services, on-campus housing — which costs roughly $1,140 per month  — is also often considered a rip-off, because higher quality off-campus housing can be substantially less expensive. These frustrations are compounded by the fact that students are the very definition of a captive market, as we must purchase one year of meal plan and live in on-campus housing as underclassmen to attend Brown. (It is also notoriously difficult to get permission to obtain more affordable, off-campus housing.) These high costs and restrictive policies create a pervasive sense that Brown is trying to squeeze every last penny out of us, which leads me to ask: If the University is a nonprofit, why do I always feel like I’m dealing with an airline?

There might be very good reasons why housing and meal plans are so expensive. Perhaps our dorm buildings are older, and therefore need more expensive upkeep than local apartments. Perhaps high meal plan costs are necessary to pay the wages of those who prepare our food, as a student in the earlier Herald article hypothesized. Perhaps high meal plan and on-campus housing costs are used to subsidize financial aid.

If the University has good reasons for charging us such exorbitant prices, where does the money go? To be clear, I’m not accusing Brown of taking advantage of us, and I’d like to believe that Brown is actually justified in charging the prices that it does. Rather, in the absence of transparency, it can feel like Brown is ripping us off. The University does publish an annual fiscal report that includes a broad overview of the budget. In 2017, Brown spent 41 percent of its budget on salaries and wages, 12 percent on employee benefits, 8 percent on graduate student support, 8 percent on depreciation, 15 percent on supplies, 10 percent on purchased services, 3 percent on utilities and 3 percent on interest. Yet these statistics don’t answer students’ primary questions: Why are room and board so expensive, and where is our money really going? This question is especially salient considering that Brown charges $14,670 for room and board, while private, nonprofit, four-year universities charged on average $12,210 for room and board in the 2017-18 school year, according to the College Board. Sure, higher education in the United States is expensive across the board — but an annual premium of $2,460 is a sizeable sum.

Brown doesn’t have an obligation to offer us an explanation of how they spend our room and board payments, and we, as students, will likely continue to purchase meal plans and on-campus housing in order to attend. Yet this lack of transparency encourages harmful behavior, allowing students to feel justified in stealing from Brown eateries. More importantly, it contributes to a sense that the administration does not have our best interests at heart, acting more like an exploiter than an accountable steward of the student body. Greater transparency and thoughtful communication will help build trust between the administration and students, and ultimately strengthen the basis of our community.

Rebecca Aman ’20 can be reached at rebecca_aman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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