This University is Robbing Students and Surrounding Communities Blind

Exemplifying the trend of colleges expanding-for-the-sake-of-expanding, Northeastern University has shifted from a local coop to an international private institution in only a couple decades — and has burned through the local Fenway community as fuel in the process.

For the 2013-14 year, the Boston-based research university’s tuition will reach a record high $40,780. The U.S. Department of Education notes that, accounting for tuition, board, and monetary aid, Northeastern now costs more than peer institutions Harvard, Tufts, and Boston College, who also post insanely high costs of living. No wonder 84% of N.U. students have to access financial aid.

Incidentally, that very program — a robust financial aid office — is how N.U. justifies hiking tuition to fund its massive expansion projects. The Huntington News covered a 2013 budget presentation where “university leaders said…that financial aid allocations will increase at double the rate of tuition.” Northeastern declares on its website that this is a “deliberate strategy” to offset rising tuition and fees, having provided $204 million in grant aid for the 2013-2014 academic year. 

But this “strategy” is unsustainable when you account for where the extra tuition money is going. N.U. is expanding through capital projects and brand new construction sites that deepen its foothold in the neighboring Fenway and Allston communities. Additionally, the university established several satellite graduate campuses in cities as distant as Charlotte and Seattle.

These projects — often at the expense of local residents — can take up to decades to complete, which means years and years of spending and further renovations that the N.U. administration is essentially betting it will be able to afford if it keeps attracting students .

Meanwhile, there goes the neighborhood(s). A report by the Fenway Community Development Corporation published in 2012 analyzed how N.U.’s ruthless expansion is poisoning established communities. The over 33,000 N.U. students now living off-campus in the Fenway neighborhood “has driven up the price of housing and [is] blazing families.” Residents have pleaded that they need a role in N.U. orientation to help curb property destruction and other violently rambunctious behavior committed by students rolling through the neighborhood late at night, or at least to be able to speak with RAs in the Fenway buildings to air their grievances. Amid all of this, Northeastern remains the biggest employer in the area, yet is panned for failing to provide job opportunities to the Fenway residents it’s abusing.

N.U.’s expansion has even happened at the direct expense of students' quality of life. In 2012, N.U. began construction on Huntington Avenue for a new residence hall to manage its rising student population. This development left students living in the adjacent YMCA complaining about noise violations, water and electricity blackouts, and “unidentified male construction workers walking around [women’s] floors without prior notice.” The Huntington News reported the administration’s response to that string of complaints: “The construction is not going to stop…we’ve been building housing for the last 10 years.”

In fact, they have — and this is the unsustainable cycle, where previous expansion projects that are in large part to blame for a rising influx of students are used to justify later expansion that damages the quality of life of current students and residents. N.U. wants to grow so they can grow more — and who cares what their existing community thinks. They’re here to stay, right?

Perhaps showing more concern for its community would offer N.U. a more reliable developmental future. Then again, the way the current market for higher education is structured opens the door for (if not directly incentivizing), universities to use tuition hikes to fund big expansion projects and grow unchecked. When tuition gets higher, students ask the government for higher loans, and colleges lobby the government to raise the loaning limit so that the system can continue.

It doesn’t really matter how high any one college’s tuition gets, government lenders are happy to give out these toxic loans that students won’t be able to pay back without tons of interest and fees. So in the end, colleges aren’t competing with each other to make tuition affordable, they’re just throwing extra tuition money at big shiny buildings and saving the change as bonuses for administrators. Students lose, but they don't know until it’s too late.

N.U. is the perfect case study. Expansion that began with President Ken Ryder’s apparently benevolent desire to broaden the opportunities offered to N.U.’s local community has metastasized into a creature that feeds on the exploitation of those very students and local residents. For some bizarre reason, it is considered a base principle of society that big universities would want to make themselves bigger, even if that means leaving in the dust the very people they’rve promised to enlighten.

Why expand at all? Is building a national network of satellite graduate campuses an exercise in spreading the N.U. brand as far as possible, so tuition can justifiably continue to skyrocket, and with it the clout and pay of its administrators? Or is it a genuine effort to provide quality education opportunities in places that might need them (like, ahem, Seattle)?

Unfortunately, the latter option seems true only on the superficial level. And even more unfortunate, the former option — that it’s an expansion meant to franchise out their institution, hiking profits for those at the top — is seen as perfectly acceptable in our capitalist culture. Suddenly, it’s not just the University of Phoenix that seeks to monopolize and profit from something as fundamental as education. Universities are businesses, even though they don’t have to compete with each other in terms of affordability, because the government tells students they can foot the bill until (if!) they graduate and get on their feet. 

Many people are revolted by this system, but are pinned in it by the promise of post-graduate success. As long as we aren’t holding administrators accountable for their power hunger, the gears of this system will stay greased. But as we realize that N.U. isn’t alone in its unjust expansion, we too realize that the N.U. community isn’t alone in resisting it. Only together can we tear down the buildings built on the backs of the underprivileged.

Until then, the Northeastern administration and board of trustees can gleefully participate in this exploitative system. They will continue to go unchecked so long as we accept the principle that stealing from your students after they graduate is considerably different than doing so before.