RIT Tuition and Where the Money Goes


According to RIT’s “Tuition and Fees” site, students spend around $65,000 a year on their education. Just over $50,000 of that figure is on tuition alone.

Students are never offered a solid explanation as to what that money is being spent on and where that tuition goes. Some picture their money being used to take care of the facilities and technology that many students have available to them — others picture it going straight into President Munson’s pocket.

With the announcement that RIT's tuition is increasing in the 2021-22 school year. It's important to look at how that figure is formed, what RIT spends that money on and how it affects students.

The Numbers, Munson. What Do They Mean?

Finding out what RIT spends money on is difficult for students to do. RIT’s self-published Final Budget is located on the Office of Budget site. Accessing the pages requires a user to jump through three different links, all of which can't be found on RIT's main homepage. Finding RIT’s audited financial statements and 990 Tax Form is even harder to do.

Of course, some things need to remain hidden. Even if it were possible to track every dollar that flows through RIT, there would be logistical problems with publicly posting where each dollar specifically ended up.

So, while we can’t get extremely specific, like knowing every faculty member’s paycheck or knowing how much money was spent on specific supplies, we can see generally how and where money comes and goes at RIT.

Ross Koenig, assistant vice president for Budget and Financial Planning Services, gave some insight into what exactly the budget entails.

“My job is to look at the Operating Budget of the institution,” he said.

The first thing that jumps out to those who read these financial statements is the category labeled “Hedge Funds.” According to the final financial statements, the fair value of RIT’s hedge funds totaled $285 million in 2019, and $261 million in 2020.

When most people think of hedge funds, they imagine billionaires sitting around becoming richer, not an academic institution.

Koenig explained where that money came from, saying that they were all funds that have been contributed to the university by donors and that the profit from those funds support the university's operations with things like scholarships and maintaining facilities.

“The term ‘hedge fund’ seems a little squirrely, but it’s what people with a billion dollars do with their investments. If we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t be making as much money as we could,” Koenig said.

The next figure that students may not be happy seeing their tuition spent on is lobbying. RIT’s 2019 Form 990 claims that RIT spent $376,850 on lobbying that year.

When asked about how much RIT spends on lobbying, Koenig explained. “That’s not really that much money given the size of the university,” he said.

“That’s not really that much money given the size of the university.”

While in terms of the total amount of money the school brings in each year that may not be a lot, in terms of how much money any one student has, that amount could be life changing.

Koenig further justified the amount spent. "[It is] the cost of access to speak with our representatives,"' he said.

While Koenig did not know the exact lobbying groups that RIT is funding, Vanessa Herman, RIT’s new vice president for Government and Community Relations had some insight into the matter.

Lobbying

RIT is currently funding three lobbying groups: MWW Group LLC who is given $74,879 annually, the National Group LLP who is given $201,313 annually, and Ostroff Associates, who is given $92,283 annually, for a total of $368,475.

According to Herman, the MWW Group LLC routinely meet with RIT faculty who are conducting research in order to compete for better research grants.

Herman gave a vague answer as to the interests of the National Group LLP.

"Their focus is on Capitol Hill which includes the President, Vice President, U.S. Senate and U.S. House with a focus on advocacy and funding initiatives," she said.

"Their focus is on Capitol Hill ... with a focus on advocacy and funding initiatives."

Herman continued by saying the National Group shares information that is important to RIT and higher education as a whole.

The National Group lobbied for the H.R. 748 Bill, also known as the CARES Act, with RIT as the client. You can find this information on OpenSecrets.org, an online database owned by The Center for Responsive Politics that tracks money in politics.

"The National Group has had a relationship with RIT for decades,Herman said. However, there is only one bill listed on the site.

OpenSecrets could not record conversations between RIT and the National Group, so it is unknown as to what specifically RIT has been working the National Group on.

The last group mentioned is Ostroff Associates, which Herman described as RIT’s connection to New York lawmakers in Albany.

Ostroff’s website mentioned that they helped “gain state support of over $13 million for the development of MAGIC Spell Studios.”

Other successes include helping Mike Bloomberg’s “Everytown for Gun Safety” enact legislation to combat gun violence and outlaw bump stocks, as well as push for more funding for the Clearly School for the Deaf.

The Increase in Tuition

The question most students have in regards to tuition and spending is: Why does tuition keep increasing every year?

On March 25, 2021, it was announced that tuition rates would increase 2.9 percent for undergraduate students and 3.9 percent for graduate students in the upcoming year, despite the next paragraph of the announcement acknowledging that the school is 'aware that the pandemic has taken a financial and emotional toll on the families of our students.'

This change is not much different than the 4 percent tuition increase that has become common for students to see every year.

When asked about this constant increase, Koenig explained that the percentage increase drives the gross tuition, not net tuition. The difference is that gross is the raw amount of money coming in, while net tuition is the gross minus institutionally funded aid.

"[That 4 percent increase every year] is prior to us giving any financial aid to students."

"[That 4 percent increase every year] is prior to us giving any financial aid to students,Koenig explained. “When you see a 3.5 percent increase in tuition, the net increase in tuition is always less than that because we always give a chunk of the increase back to students in the form of financial aid.”

Koenig claims that while tuition has been increasing by around 3.5 percent to 4 percent every year, the aid budget has increased by about 6 percent to 9 percent to compensate for that. This means that the average student might only feel about a 1.7 percent to 2 percent increase in tuition every year. However, this only applies to incoming students and does not help current students.

While a 2 percent increase isn’t as taxing on students and their families as a 4 percent increase, it is still a $1,000 tuition increase. This is a significant amount of money for some students, especially if they are independent and pay for their tuition themselves.

Loose Ends

Even with the three weeks of constant digging into these sources, some information still doesn't have straightforward answers.

RIT’s 2019 Form 990 says that RIT donated $11,250 to the 'Laurent Clerc Educational Fund of Colorado.'

Nothing much is known about the facility except that it was founded in 1996, and the location listed is an office building in Lakewood, Colo.

Different sources refer to the Educational Fund as a corporation, charter school, special ed school, magnet school or a combination of these entities.

The most solid piece of documentation readily available is their 2016 bylaws, which names their board of directors from 2016. However, all of the positions’ term limits expired from 2017 to 2019.

These bylaws have confusing rules not common in corporate bylaws. They note that the company should not have any members or stock. Their current office is located in Jefferson County. However, they note that any other site can be designated "from time to time".  This makes it sound like their official office, which is currently inside an office building, can move at any time.

Sites like causeiq.com, a non-profit databasing website, claim that RIT was the only entity that was recorded giving funds to the school.

Another website, refundwhatmatters.org, claims that the Laurent Clerc Educational Fund of Colorado also goes by the name Rocky Mountain Deaf School, a public charter school in Denver. However, the Rocky Mountain Deaf School has no mention of the name “Laurent Clerc Educational Fund of Colorado” on their entire website, and has a different registered location than the one RIT donates to.

So why would RIT donate $11,250 to a school that has no solid recorded history?

The other loose end is also recorded in the Form 990. In 2019, RIT spent $14.5 million on "travel."

Koenig listed things like traveling to high schools for recruiting, athletics, conference travel for faculty conducting research, but most importantly fundraising.

“The President travels quite a bit [for fundraising], frankly.” Koenig said.

In a conversation during the Black Lives Matter rally, President Munson confirmed the statements Koenig made regarding his travel.

“I travel once, maybe twice a month for fundraising,” Munson said.

Koenig explained that if there is a high-profile donor that is on the fence about donating a large sum to RIT, Munson will travel to the donor in person to seal the deal.

While all of those factors make sense on their own, some students can’t make sense of all of those funds totaling $14.5 million. Renting a private jet for up to 9 people costs from $4 to $8 thousand dollars, which means that the budget can afford from 181 to 362 private jet rentals, and professors who travel to conferences can tell you, they are not getting private jets.

Conclusion

The price of living at RIT has been constantly increasing, and students are feeling the damage caused by it.

A reddit thread has been following this story, and has seen the difference in administration from Destler to Munson.

One of Destler’s five pillars in his strategic plan was “Affordability, Value, and Return on Investment”. Munson’s four pillars did not mention affordability or cost at all.

One of Destler’s key mottos for RIT was “Greatness Through Difference”.

Destler explained what “Greatness Through Difference” meant.

“We belong in the category of the world’s great universities, not because we seek to replicate the great universities of the 20th century, but because we are already practicing what the future universities must provide,” he said.

This tone is strikingly different than the picture Koenig painted of how RIT makes its decisions.

In the interview with Koenig, he made it a point to emphasize how important the Association of Independent Technological Universities (AITU) was to financial decision making.

The AITU is a group of universities that RIT competes with on topics like amount of funding, ranking and accreditation. This includes Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, MIT and Carnegie Mellon University.

The dramatic shift from focusing on what makes RIT great to what makes RIT compared to everyone else has created an environment that is not focused on students and their success, but rather the university’s success as a whole.

This type of on paper success comes at a cost, and it’s a cost students are required to pay.

Look into the numbers and see what you think doesn’t add up. Ask questions. After all, it’s your money.