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KUNM News Update

Report: Tuition Increases Linked To Decreasing Diversity On College Campuses

Kalsom Cheman via Wikimedia Commons
Creative Commons License

University of New Mexico undergraduate tuition has gone up over 50 percent in the last decade. The UNM Board of Regents gave the green light to raise tuition again in March. New research suggests increasing tuition could reduce student diversity. Greg Wolniak co-authored the research and spoke with Public Health New Mexico’s Sarah Trujillo.  

WOLNIAK: We know through decades really of research that if tuition goes up, enrollment should at least on a percent basis decline if everything else is held constant. It’s like with any good or service in our economy, you know, as prices go up, quantity demanded goes down. But what we never knew and what no one had looked at in prior studies is the influence a tuition change has on the diversity of students enrolled. And that’s where this particular research makes its biggest contribution.

The fact that we found effects as substantial as we did, I think is just a really important reminder to leaders in higher education, whether that’s administrators or policy makers, to think beyond the bottom line. A lot of times tuition increases are geared up towards helping to generate revenue. Well that may work in some cases but what we’re seeing here is there may be some unintended consequences for the diverse composition of the student body. 

KUNM: One of the results was talking about if there were tuition increases at just private institutions, then the public institutions – their diversity kind of goes up, correct?

WOLNIAK: That is true. You nailed it. So, what this means I think is that it really points to how interrelated the higher education system is. It really is an ecosystem. It’s not independent individual institutions that are silos or islands. The actions of one affect outcomes at the other and so what we see here is that if there are neighboring institutions that are private, and they raise their tuition, that has an affect of  increasing in diversity on the public campuses. From a student or consumer perspective, there’s just different options in the marketplace and this speaks to that.

KUNM: Okay, okay. Why should people care about this study or pay attention to the results that you found? 

WOLNIAK: We know a lot about the influences of diversity on college campuses. I was co-author on a book that came out in 2016 called How College Affects Students. It’s 700 pages worth of empirical evidence on how different aspects of college experience and the institutional environments in which students exist, influence their growth and development over time through exposure to higher education. There was only a couple of things that drove students' learning and development during their time in college. One of those things was exposure to good teaching. No huge surprise but nice to see validated in the literature. 

The other thing was the exposure to diversity, meaning exposure to diverse peers and exposure to diverse perspectives in the classroom. We see that that simple, not always simple to achieve, but that concept matters developmentally for students across a number of different important outcomes. Cognitive development gains and attitudes towards society, even a sense of well-being. 

So, when we see increases in tuition deteriorating the opportunity for students to have those diverse interactions, that doesn’t just matter from a political standpoint – it matters from a developmental standpoint, a learning standpoint. Not only should administrators and higher leaders care, or researchers like me, but students should take ownership of that empirical evidence and care also.


KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the McCune Charitable Foundation.