In Response to: Financial aid: Who wins?

The May 14 PAW cover story raises an issue Princeton and our peer institutions must consider. Increases in the nominal tuition at the most heavily endowed colleges and universities drive up tuition elsewhere, thereby saddling many excellent students at other colleges with excessive debt.

The full tuition charged by Prince-ton and comparable universities sets the upper limit for tuition at many excellent but less affluent schools. We have traditionally viewed our tuition and financial-aid policies as a legitimate form of income redistribution, but this has an unintended consequence. Other colleges raise their tuition in tandem with ours. With less generous aid programs, their students are assuming increasing debt loads, often in the form of private, nonsubsidized loans. Such loans typically accrue interest while a student is in graduate school, postgraduate training, or public service.

I agree that families and students should invest in education (with two daughters in college, I am investing a good deal myself). However, I fear that the magnitude of student debt, and its impact, is underestimated by many of those who set tuition. As a cardiologist, I have the privilege of interacting with housestaff who recently have finished medical school. Their debts are often in excess of $200,000. Similar debt loads afflict students in other fields of graduate study. This seriously impacts student career choices. Students are compelled to seek high-paying jobs in order to get out of debt, regardless of their field of endeavor. Such debt also impairs young adults’ ability to save for their retirement, and for their own children’s education. By allowing student debt to explode over the last several decades, we may be laying the groundwork for a future debt crisis.

Princeton and her peers should not only continue our generous aid policies, but also take the lead in attenuating the ongoing rise in tuition. I am enormously proud of Princeton’s aid policies. I have contributed to Annual Giving every year since my graduation, and intend to continue doing so. My hope is that Princeton and her peers, by restraining the rise in their tuition, might aid many fine students at other excellent, but less well-endowed, colleges. As we set our tuition and financial-aid policies, we should be cognizant of the impact of our actions on others.

Kenneth A. Bernhard ’78