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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Elite and out-of-reach

One would think the move by the nation's most elite colleges and universities to become more affordable to the middle classes would mean opportunities for tens of thousands of needy young men and women who until now had to settle for lesser institutions. One would be wrong.

One would think the move by the nation’s most elite colleges and universities to become more affordable to the middle classes would mean opportunities for tens of thousands of needy young men and women who until now had to settle for lesser institutions. One would be wrong.

The ripple effect of decisions by Harvard and Yale to pretty much dump the means test for student aid and eliminate their loan programs in exchange for outright grants just isn’t going to produce a tidal wave of new chances for economically disadvantaged youngsters. In fact, just the opposite is probable with students from relatively well-off families filling many of the slots that might be available for those from low -income brackets.

Neither these Ivy League schools, the so-called sub-Ivies nor the wealthier public institutions that follow suit are going to be enrolling average students unless there are special circumstances like legacies from wealthy families who promise financial support down the pike. Their admissions policies aren’t going to change and enrollment levels aren’t going to expand, just the elite student pool from which they draw. Young men and women with decent but unspectacular high school grades still are going to have to look toward institutions that may or may not offer the kind of scholarship benefits of those with huge endowments.

In the meantime, the steady rise in the cost of higher education isn’t going to stall anytime soon. Tuition, room and board grew 6.6 percent last year bringing the average of a private school to more than $32,000 and a public one to $13 500, still a bargain in the scheme of things. As the costs climb, Congress seems on the verge of stepping in. Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley has proposed forcing schools whose endowments are $500 million or more to spend 5 percent to benefit students. It’s blatant government interference and a bad idea.

Faculty salaries have been lagging in most institutions for some time and the constant pressure to increase them has been a driving factor in the acceleration of tuition. This is true particularly among those schools whose endowments are strained as they try to compete for students with schools who are able to pay more and more of the student costs and to attract high profile academics who in turn attract better students. Once again money talks eloquently.

It is one thing to have an endowment of billions and quite another to have one that is in the low millions, which is the case with the vast majority of U.S. colleges and universities, many of which are excellent schools. Just how much these lower to moderately financed schools can follow the high profile elites is anyone’s guess, but the grumbling throughout the higher education world is not unsubstantial. The likely victim as the schools try to keep up in the hunt for four-point achievers is the financially struggling student who will see more of the money flowing to parents with annual incomes as high as $150,000.

For Harvard and Yale and some others this is not a problem. Their enormous endowments would permit them without strain to eliminate tuition and, in fact, provide every student with a stipend like the military academies. This is not meant to deride what they have done. But should there be no cost associated with higher education? Doesn’t paying something toward one’s future, even if it is a token amount, make that achievement more valuable?

As a trustee of a venerable, but modestly endowed liberal arts college, I find the situation both intriguing and fraught with problems. Of the 1,000 or so undergraduates at this 174-year old private institution, most receive financial help even though the endowment is only about $100 million and tuition is relatively low for a school of this high standard. How much more aid is possible without serious decline in the academic level the school has so successfully maintained is a serious concern. It would be a major tragedy should Franklin College and similarly situated schools whose steady output of a solid corps of public servants, doctors, lawyers and merchant chiefs has been so important to this nation suddenly have to struggle to stay afloat in the Harvard-Yale tsunami.

This probably won’t happen, but the pressures are there. Some thoughtful consideration should be given to how far the example should be followed considering the old lemmings to the sea possibilities. Some of the major state universities with large endowments, including Indiana and Virginia, already have initiated new aid policies aimed largely at the truly needy, however. It is the right direction.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)

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