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Harvard Ups the Ante in the Student Aid Game

It is easy to provide aid to low-income students if you don't have a lot of them!

Following Stanford's decision to eliminate family tuition contributions for families making less than $45,000 a year, Harvard has pledged to not require family contributions from students with families making less than $60,000, in what is certainly a victory for college access and socio-economic diversity in the nation's most elite colleges:

The New York Times ::Harvard University, which two years ago focused attention on the paucity of low-income students in the Ivy League with its announcement that it would not ask parents who earned less than $40,000 a year to contribute money for their children's education, said yesterday that it would raise that ceiling to $60,000 for students entering this fall.

Last year, Yale said it would eliminate the contribution required of parents earning less than $45,000, an plan similar to Harvard's.

This month there has been a profusion of announcements. In early March, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said it would begin matching the federal Pell Grants that its low-income students got. Pell grants are currently $4,050 a year.

M.I.T., which will charge $43,550 for tuition, housing and meals, said that 16 percent of its undergraduates came from homes with incomes below $42,000, and that 90 percent of its undergraduates qualified for financial aid.

Stanford University said this month that it would eliminate the parental contribution for families with annual incomes below $45,000. Last week, the University of Pennsylvania said it would replace loans with grants for undergraduates from economically disadvantaged families with incomes of $50,000 or less.

If nothing else, these developments in student aid reflect the growing dispersion in wealth among the nation's top colleges and universities. In the face of Harvard or Princeton's opulence -- each school boasts more than a million dollars of endowment per student, there is no way that Cornell could ever hope to compete in the student aid game while at the same time making the required investments in its faculty, buildings, and research that are necessary to maintain Cornell's position as a research university of international importance.

David Skorton has been brought to Ithaca with much fanfare as a proven fundraiser, but even if the University's current capital campaign is a success, it would be nearly impossible to match the Harvards of the world in terms of the financial aid that we offer our undergraduates. Still, it would be nice if some of the proceeds of the upcoming capital campaign would be used to subsidize undergraduate education for those students that need the help, and not all into the Life Sciences initiative.

Of course, it is worth mentioning that it is relatively cheap to provide high-levels of grant aid to low-income students if you don't have a lot of them, and Cornell has four times as many low-income students as Harvard does. One wonders if these changing financial aid policies will mean any real difference in the amount of socio-economic diversity at these colleges.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on April 04, 2006 (#)

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