Don't forget to watch the exclusive interview video at the end of the article!Rice Thresher: You've been spending a lot of money on buildings. But we have a bit more debt than usual and a bit less revenue to back it up. The number one question on students' minds is if you've got any plans to stabilize tuition costs, especially if Rice wants to maintain its reputation as a bargain school.
President David Leebron: I wouldn't call it a "bargain" school. I don't think "bargain" is the word we use. I think we deliver the best value around. You don't want to be the cheapest; you want to be the best value. I would say one thing we hadn't quite anticipated was the very substantial increase in scholarships, and that's for a number of reasons. We've seen a growth, for example, in Pell Grant recipients: We had 50 percent more Pell Grant recipients than we had five years ago. So, a lot more diversity in our student population. If you look at our peers, we certainly have one of the most economically diverse populations among our peers. That's expensive. Our net tuition revenue is more than it was because we have more students. Our net tuition per student is less because we've more than matched the increases in tuition costs with scholarships. We fully intend to maintain our reputation as one of the best values.
That said, we're entering a very difficult period of time where, because of the endowment losses, some of which we've recovered, we're not going to see increases out of the endowment over the next few years. That is going to put pressure on tuition. Now, if the question is: Do we expect to see unusually large tuition increases over the next few years? The answer to that is no, we do not. Do we expect to see tuition increases probably above inflation? Yes, we probably do.
Coming through this difficult period, we have to make choices: Do we stop doing things? Do we cut back on things? How will we remain competitive on salaries? And all of us are bearing a burden. So, just to repeat the bottom line: There will be tuition increases; they won't be trivial, but they also won't be unusually large, if you look at what the last few years have been. They're larger than we would like, certainly larger than our students would like; as in the past, those will be matched by scholarship aid. That's not to say no families will be affected or people won't feel a burden, but if you're on scholarship, every dollar of tuition increase is matched by a dollar increase in scholarship. Part of the reason we've maintained our ranking as best value is because our average scholarships have been increasing, and the number of students on scholarships have been increasing.
RT: What's our international image as a university?
DL: We have a very strong image, as people would expect. Somewhat small but very high quality. We are known as a research university, so I think that, on the domestic level, people may know us more as a place with great undergraduate education, but the international reputation certainly has a higher component of great research, emerging out of things like nanotechnology, for example, and work with the Baker Institute; people know about the Shepherd School. These are all programs with international visibility. [...] I would say, internationally, we are better known for our science and engineering, and I think one of our tasks is to make sure people know we have good humanities and social sciences. In the foreign students, we are seeing more interested in humanities and social sciences.
In relations with Chinese universities, for example, we had a whole delegation come from Fudan University, which is one of the best universities in China. After that delegation, they were as interested in philosophy, economics and public policy as they were in science and engineering. The challenge always is to catch people up. We're actually a very balanced university. Our fundamental challenge is the breadth of our university under a relatively small student and resource base. If we were a more focused university, we would kind of be financially perhaps a little more comfortable than we are. So I think we're doing very well internationally. I think we have a fair visibility.
I do think in terms of visibility and reputation, one of the most important things is the number of applicants that you get because they spread the word. Every time somebody applies, people say, 'Oh, where are you applying?' They're applying to Rice, Stanford [University], [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology], whatever. If you look at foreign applicants, that's a number that, over five years, has quintupled. So we've gone from 400 to 2,000 foreign applicants, and nothing else has increased at quite that level. This year, we saw a big increase in applicants from the UK, for example; that's very heartening. Working on Latin America.
RT: Is this growth in recent years just in undergraduate population or in graduate population, too?
DL: No, the graduate population has grown some. We'd actually like to see it grow a little more. But both the procedural aspects of that and the financing is very different. Although you could say we lose money on every student, when we add a marginal undergraduate student, actually, we probably make money on that. It's not true when you add a marginal graduate student. It depends a little on how they're financed. So, we do have more graduate students, but we'll have to let that grow organically over time. But with the graduate students as at many places but particularly places strong with science and engineering, we have a lot of foreign students, particularly from China and from India. So that's been actually less of an issue. I think where we have an opportunity to have a strength is building some relationships - despite your horrible editorial - building some relationships between graduate and undergraduate. For example, some of the student ethnic organizations, to really reach across that barrier, and we have the capacity to make Rice a special place for graduate students. In my view, we ought to seize that, and we ought to welcome them to participate in Beer Bike, or whatever it is.