Students Question Where Tuition Money is Going

Sage Lee, senior political science major, looks at the construction for The Mountain in the Rho parking lot (Photo by Jennifer Miao).

Pepperdine University is one of the most expensive colleges in the U.S. 

After one of the biggest tuition hikes ever, university administrators celebrated the grand opening of the Lausanne program’s Château d’Hauteville in July 2023 and started construction of The Mountain at Mullin Park in March 2023. Students are speculating about whether their tuition dollars are funding these big projects.  

“I wonder why it was raised so much,” said Savannah Sichelstiel, senior screen arts major. “I just don’t know what it could possibly go toward.” 

Elyse Jankowski, associate director for Communications and Public Relations for Pepperdine’s Integrated Marketing Communications, wrote that no Pepperdine administrators were available to be interviewed for this story, but she shared a formal statement from Chief Financial Officer Greg G. Ramirez.

“We see Château d’Hauteville and The Mountain as critical investments in our students and our commitment to academic and intellectual excellence,” Ramirez wrote. “We are grateful for the generous contributions of donors who have partnered with us to realize the vision we have for Pepperdine.”

Pepperdine Increases Tuition 

Tuition for Seaver College students increased by 5.7% for the 2023-24 school year. Direct costs for the 2022-23 school year were $81,702, whereas direct costs for 2023-24 school year are now $90,012 according to the Pepperdine website.

Overall, U.S. private colleges increased tuition about 4% in 2022, Nicole Goodkind wrote in a July 16 CNN business article.

Rising college costs are playing a significant role in a decline of overall U.S. confidence in higher education, Jessica Blake wrote in a July 11 Inside Higher Ed article

“My choice to attend Pepperdine was because of scholarships and financial aid,” Sichelstiel said. “But now I have to pay a lot for loans after I graduate because of the insane increase. It’s stressing me out a lot.”

Julian Anzar, junior international studies major, said he has struggled with paying for tuition. 

“I chose Pepperdine as it was my cost-effective option,” Anzar said. “I come from a single parent household with one income and we are already struggling. Everything about college is stressful and everything is just going up in price.”

Anzar chose to attend Pepperdine because it would have saved him the most money. 

“With Pepperdine raising tuition, it’s becoming a more and more of a financial burden that I have to look at options of transferring and even maybe dropping out,” Anzar said. 

Students wanted to know more about why costs were increasing and where the money was going. 

“I think it would be helpful if Pepperdine created or released a breakdown of where all the money is going to,” said Sage Lee, senior political science major. 

Students also showed lower confidence in the value of a Pepperdine degree for the price they now have to pay.

“I don’t think any degree is worth like $100,000 a year,” Lee said. 

Ramirez wrote that this year’s increase in cost of attendance was due to inflation. 

“Pepperdine heavily relies upon tuition to fund the operating costs of the entire University, which have been significantly impacted by inflation,” Ramirez wrote. “The University functionally classifies annual operating costs as program services, management and general, and fundraising, which totaled $476 million in fiscal year 2022.”

Pepperdine invests in new projects 

Amidst these tuition increases, the university has invested heavily in both the chateau and the Mountain.

The chateau is a historic 18th century estate overlooking Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Pepperdine acquired the chateau in 2019 for approximately $66 million for the Lausanne program, Ashley Mowreader wrote in an October 2020 Pepperdine Graphic article. Since 2019, the chateau has been undergoing major renovations. The Pepperdine community celebrated the grand opening of the chateau in Switzerland July 4-5, and welcomed its first class of students in Fall 2023.

The chateau is built in an European style and the property includes 67 acres of land. The property includes coach houses, gardens, a winepress, fountains, stables and a creek, Mowreader wrote. 

Jankowski declined to provide specific numbers for how much the renovations on the Chateau cost and how they were funded. In his statement, Ramirez wrote that the university sold Maison du Lac, Pepperdine’s previously-owned property in Lausanne, and funneled that money into the chateau. They also received a grant from the Swiss government due to the historic nature of the property, and fundraised other portions, “resulting in the new Switzerland campus nearly entirely funded and optimistic to be fully-funded through continued fundraising support,” Ramirez wrote.

Austin Yerke, junior business administration major, is part of the first student cohort to live in the chateau. Yerke said he has had a good time so far, but he also recognizes the costs of having that experience.

“The chateau is beautiful from the outside,” Yerke said. “However, it definitely is an expensive experience. Especially since everything in Switzerland is already expensive.” 

Meanwhile in Malibu, students are experiencing the construction of The Mountain. The Mountain will include an arena, food venues, smaller reception spaces and other multifunctional spaces to serve as a recreation space for students, according to the Pepperdine website. Additionally, the construction in Rho parking lot will include a seven-level parking garage, Melissa Auchard wrote in an Aug. 31 Pepperdine Graphic article

Jankowski again declined to give any specific numbers for the Mountain, including current estimated costs or how much has been raised for the project. Fundraising material online indicates the university is trying to raise $150 million and prior Graphic reporting indicated the project would cost $250 million.  

“Although these are significant investments, they will be resourced through various means, such as fundraising, utilization of bond proceeds from prior year issuances, and project reserves,” Ramirez wrote. 

The construction in Rho parking lot, North Towers Road and the intramural field is impacting student lives. 

Sichelstiel lives in Drescher and regularly takes the shuttle to commute to main campus. 

“The construction has made me late to class multiple times,” Sichelstiel said. “That has bothered me.” 

Furthermore, Sichelstiel expressed her frustration for not having the intramural field anymore. 

“They took away our intramural field and that’s where I played soccer all the time with my friends and that’s something I looked forward to,” Sichelstiel said. “I bought cleats and a soccer ball so that I can play there. And now it’s gone.”

Lee also expressed frustration of not being able to find parking on campus due to the construction. 

“It’s already been hard to find parking,” Lee said. “So now it’s just worse.” 

Anzar lives in the Lovernich complex next to the construction site, which has impacted his living situation.

“It’s a headache listening to the construction,” Anzar said.

Student speculate where tuition money is going

While some students are experiencing the joys of the chateau and others are experiencing the effects of the construction, some students are wondering whether their tuition money is funding these big projects. Students said they have not seen any clear communication from Pepperdine administrators about how the projects were funded. 

“I didn’t think it was going to the chateau, but I believed people when they said it was going to The Mountain,” Lee said. “There has to be something going on behind the scenes.”

Students said they want to know where their money is going.

“At least to my knowledge it wasn’t stated where it was going toward,” Sichelstiel said. “I have also been speculating about if our money is going to the Mountain or if it went to the chateau.”

Sydney Nystrom, junior international studies and French double major, interned and helped facilitate the grand opening of the chateau over the summer. 

“I believe the chateau didn’t use any tuition money,” Nystrom said. “But I don’t know about the Mountain.”

In the midst of these speculations, some students also said they were frustrated that Pepperdine has not invested in more meaningful projects such as housing, other international programs and school departments. 

“The chateau is just like a money grab almost,” Lee said. “I’m sure that there’s improvements that can be made in every program and I don’t think buying a giant house in the countryside is the solution.”

Similarly, Anzar said he didn’t see a purpose for the chateau. According to his friends who were in the previous Lausanne program, they said they didn’t see any major issues with Maison du Lac.

“It feels like it’s more of a show of money and how prestigious Pepperdine is and it’s more of us just trying to brag that we have these resources,” Anzar said. 

Anzar said Pepperdine is not investing in things that will make his degree feel worth it. Students collectively think that these projects are only for material view. 

“Our dorms are still outdated and there’s no functioning air conditioning except in Drescher,” Anzar said. “Other IP programs should be more well funded. Like the Florence facilities were run down comparatively.” 

Sichelstiel often has to use school film equipment for class and her hobbies. However, Sichelstiel said she is frustrated that there is not enough funding in her department, and that almost all the equipment they use is breaking. 

“Our camera department has a lot of equipment that is extremely outdated. For example, we’ve been taping our microphones to the camera,” Sichelstiel said. “I keep saying to everyone that there are cars that drive themselves and we’ve been to the moon but we still have to tape our microphones to the camera.”

Jennifer Miao completed the reporting for this story in Jour 241 under the supervision of Dr. Christina Littlefield and Dr. Theresa de los Santos. Dr. Littlefield supervised the web version of the story.