As elite schools offer financial aid to more affluent families, other colleges struggle to stay in the game

Photo illustration: Third Eye images, Lonnie Busch/Conrad Zobel

“Your money is always greener before your tuition’s paid, 
And if the years are leaner, you must get financial aid. 
And so the administration, not too many days ago, they changed the situation. 
Now all can afford to go ...

Princeton is free! Princeton is free! 
We’ve got to keep it the best-kept secret in Ivy League! 
The Orange and the Black the way to go, everyone else pays through the nose.

We’ve got the plan here, save all your clams here, Princeton is free!”
 

The Nassoons’ song, a crowd favorite the group set to the tune of “Under the Sea” in 1990, is still satirical — but less so than it was when it was added to the repertoire. In the seven years since Princeton said that it would get rid of loans and remove the value of the family home from aid calculations, the portion of each incoming class receiving aid has risen sharply, from 38 percent to about 54 percent — and the average size of those grants has more than doubled, to almost $31,200. Today the average financial-aid grant for a student from a family earning up to $100,000 a year is more than the $33,000 cost of tuition. Even students who would be considered quite well-off by most Americans get assistance: Among families applying for aid who earn between $150,000 and $200,000, 80 percent receive help — an average of $17,100.

Since Princeton’s 2001 policy changes, a host of other schools have introduced their own measures, including a flurry of recent moves sparked by Harvard’s announcement in December that even families nearing $200,000 a year in income may pay as little as 10 percent of their incomes for college. It all has lucky students and their families celebrating, and schools scrambling to keep up. “There’s quite a bit of pressure now to follow the moves that Princeton was able to make seven years ago,” says Robin Moscato, Princeton’s director of undergraduate financial aid. “In addition to no-loan packages, the trend now is for schools to improve aid for middle-income families.”

The ripple effect of these changes has yet to be fully felt or even imagined; most were announced after students applying for spots in the class of 2012 had sent in their applications, so the impact likely won’t be understood for at least another year. But college presidents, while praising anything that broadens access to higher education, also have their questions about the most expansive policies. Some worry that the trend toward greater aid for wealthier families will cause even the affluent to believe they have no obligation to save for or invest in a child’s college education. What will the new policies mean for the universities and colleges that implement them? What are the effects on schools that don’t have the money to compete with similar plans? And, more broadly, how do these changes affect higher education in general — will the poorest students get squeezed out if aid attention turns to the upper-middle class?

“Anything that Princeton or Harvard does is going to make news; it will help us focus on a conversation that this country needs to have,” says Jennifer Raab *79, president of Hunter College, the largest college in the City University of New York system. As part of that conversation, PAW asked Princeton alumni who head colleges and universities, as well as other experts, for their thoughts and predictions.

First, let’s look the aid policies themselves. As Moscato says, some schools simply are replacing loans with grants in their aid packages, either for all students or for those from families earning less than a certain amount (which varies at each college). But a handful are doing that and much more. Under Harvard’s plan, families with annual incomes between $120,000 and $180,000 usually will pay just 10 percent of that in costs. Yale said in January that it would help families earning up to $200,000. Dartmouth, Brown, and other schools have announced so-called free-tuition programs, in which families earning less than a certain threshold pay no tuition at all. That’s not the term Princeton used to describe its 2001 changes, but the result is similar.

Eliminating loans is the more affordable step for colleges to take, and it’s also widely — though not universally — applauded. One obvious goal is to make sure that students don’t graduate with a burdensome debt (the average student-loan debt is now more than $20,000). A 2007 study co-authored by Princeton professors Cecilia Rouse and Jesse Rothstein found that an extra $10,000 in debt diminishes the odds that a graduate will take a public-service or other lower-paying job: “When students were relieved from the need to incur debt, they shifted toward lower-salary jobs in public-service industries,” the study found. Loans as a component of an aid package also disproportionately scare off lower-income students, whose families tend to be more uncomfortable taking on debt than middle-income families, aid experts say. 

Though some schools have followed Princeton’s lead in eliminating loans for all students, most colleges simply cannot afford it. Princeton’s endowment — $15.8 billion at the end of the last fiscal year — enables the University to pay out more in financial aid than it takes in through tuition, but few others have that flexibility. A more typical college in this regard is Fairfield University, a Jesuit university in Fairfield, Conn, where the Rev. Jeffrey von Arx ’69 is president. “I came [to Fairfield] when we were meeting 75 percent of estimated family need; now we’re up to nearly 85 percent, and I hope to meet 100 percent. But some students get a financial-aid package that does not meet their total need, and they have to take out loans,” he says. “That’s when it’s important for us to be as brutally honest as we can and tell them that, given the package, they should give careful consideration to coming here. That’s a hard thing to say. But it’s the reality of the financial-aid market at 90 percent of places.”

Even at some of those schools for which such a no-loan policy might be an option, there’s caution. Michael Roth *84, the president of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., often hears from distressed parents who are feeling the pinch of tuition. “We have to make sure we don’t become a school that has only the very wealthy and very poor people,” he says. “On the other hand, how do you judge an appropriate sacrifice? It’s very difficult, and we want to make sure we are using resources in as strategic a way as possible to make it possible for those who want to come here to do so.” After all, a school that uses its limited financial-aid pool to offer grants instead of loans probably cannot help as many families as it could if loans were part of the package. Roth announced in November that Wesleyan would eliminate loans for undergrads with annual family incomes of less than $40,000. Wesleyan is studying a more comprehensive no-loans program, but Roth believes that it’s not the only way to go. “We don’t want to be just chasing the schools that have gotten rid of loans; we want to study that more carefully over a year or two,” he says.

“I’ve lost track of how many schools have come out with statements saying that they’ve eliminated loans,” says S. Georgia Nugent ’73, president of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and former associate provost at Princeton. Kenyon will guarantee a loan-free education to 25 lower-income students with exceptional leadership potential starting in the 2008–09 school year, funded partly by a gift from alumnus Paul Newman — but Nugent, like others, is not convinced that this is the right approach for all students. “While I’m definitely concerned about the level of indebtedness that college graduates have, and we’re working to bring that level down, I don’t think it should be brought down to zero,” she says. “A message is being sent to the American public that higher education shouldn’t cost very much, and that you as a family or a prospective student shouldn’t have to invest in the future.”

Kenyon College
Kenyon College
photos courtesy: Kenyon College
S. Georgia Nugent ’73
S. Georgia Nugent ’73
photos courtesy: Kenyon College

Aid to families earning more than $150,000 — statistically far above the middle class — is especially controversial, since many feel that money would be better used to promote access in other ways. (In a sense, even the wealthiest families already are being subsidized, since the true cost of an education at a top school is only partially covered by the tuition fee.) It’s not that college costs aren’t a problem; the sticker price for Ivy League schools hovers around $47,000. But some financial-aid experts predict even more pressure to get into the handful of elite schools that can offer the most generous aid. “Not only do people feel like these are the only institutions that count, but it will cost their parents so much more if they go elsewhere,” says Michael McPherson, former president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and now president of the Spencer Foundation, which funds activities that foster new ideas in education.

That realization could influence the spending decisions of schools that don’t have multibillion-dollar endowments, McPherson says. Such schools will have to weigh whether to redirect funding now targeted for other expenses — like professors, labs, and grants for low-income students, for example — to assist upper-middle-class families, perhaps by using grants based on merit and not financial need. While that has benefits in some cases, “if schools in the same pecking order start bidding for students, they end up with the same students and get less revenue from them,” he explains. “In some ways, the reasonable thing is to just say, ‘Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford are on a different planet and have nothing to do with what we’re doing — they’re in a different game.’” The problem? “Empirically that’s more or less true, but the fact is that emotionally — and for trustees — it’s really hard to accept that,” McPherson says.

Wesleyan University
Wesleyan University
photos courtesy: Wesleyan University
Michael Roth *84
Michael Roth *84
photos courtesy: Wesleyan University

“Moving up the income scale will surely put the pressure on,” says John Strassburger *76, president of Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa. “People think, ‘Gee, if Harvard will only cost us $18,000, why should Ursinus cost us $30,000? I don’t get it.’ The perceived costs of education will change.” To better compete for good students and sustain diversity, Ursinus will try to increase aid and cut loans for the best students in its pool next year, Strassburger says.

The pressure is not being felt solely by private schools with smaller endowments. Public colleges sometimes compete for the same students — with budgets that face even tighter constraints. In a February letter to members of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, President Tilghman noted that most students now “pay less to attend Princeton than they would pay to attend the nation’s great public universities.” Indeed, after Harvard made its announcement, the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, Robert Birgeneau, wrote in an op-ed in USA Today that because private institutions can be so much more generous with aid, the latest moves may mean that “it could become more expensive for a student from a family of low or moderate means to attend a public university than for a student from a well-to-do family to attend a private college.” (Berkeley costs about $25,000 a year for out-of-state students.) To compete, he’s calling for public-private partnerships to fund endowments — and better financial aid — at public schools, which educate 75 percent of the college population. But state budgets are being squeezed everywhere, leading many to call for national help.

“Congress needs to say that this is such an important priority that we need substantial additional funding for financial aid,” says Mark Kantrowitz, creator of FinAid.org, which offers information and tips on paying for college. “An extra $10 billion to $15 billion a year would eliminate loans from most aid packages in the country and put Pell Grants [for low-income students] on a firm financial footing,” he says.

While the funding of public schools is a universal concern, some public-university presidents see the issue differently. Steven Poskanzer ’80, president of the State Uni-versity of New York at New Paltz, where in-state tuition is just $4,350 a year, says his school begins to look like a bargain compared to private schools that cannot offer extensive aid — and that might boost his enrollment.

Ursinus College
Ursinus College
photos courtesy: Ursinus College
John Strassburger *76
John Strassburger *76
photos courtesy: Ursinus College




SUNY New Paltz
SUNY New Paltz
photos courtesy: SUNY New Paltz
Steven Poskanzer ’80
Steven Poskanzer ’80
photos courtesy: SUNY New Paltz











Katherine Hobson ’94 is a writer at U.S. News & World Report.
Hunter College
Hunter College
photos courtesy: Hunter College
Jennifer Raab *79
Jennifer Raab *79
photos courtesy: Kenyon College