Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Harvard/Yale aid reforms is not a letdown

Columbia's former dean of students and director of American studies argue in today's New York Times that Harvard and Yale's increase of financial aid to upper middle class families (though with household incomes over $120,000) is a "letdown".

The authors are simply wrong. They conflate two related, but distinct, problems in American higher education. The first is that poor, working class, and middle class families cannot afford to send their children to college. At America's richest universities, generous financial aid policies have gone a long way toward solving this problem. There is still a work to be done, but for families who literally do not make enough to pay their children's tuition bills, there is significant help. At Harvard and Yale in particular, recent changes in aid policy (favoring grants over loans, decreases in expected work study and summer contributions) are nearing the extinction of this problem.

The second problem, in many ways, is far worse. It is the problem that upper middle class families increasing simply cannot afford to spend $40,000 a year on one child's college education, and certainly cannot spend $80,000 a year for two children. This is a relatively new problem in America. Poor and middle class families have always had difficulty paying for hired education, and the trend since World War II has been overwhelmingly positive (at least, until recent years). On the other hand, up until the past decade or so, upper middle class families have been able to afford to send their children to the best colleges in the country. The departure from this is troubling.

Bright high school seniors should not have to choose between schools based on cost, no matter what their family income. In upper middle class families, financial aid has languished behind rising need, which, yes, does exist for those families. It is about time that America's universities are beginning to take notice. Harvard and Yale's desire to make college truly affordable to everyone is laudable.

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