Yale can’t afford to follow pack on aid reform

Yale prides itself as a leader in higher education, and on issues like visa reform and admissions, it has lived up to that image. But in its financial aid policies, the University seems content to follow.

Consider recent moves by three other universities Yale eagerly competes with in other areas. In 2001, Princeton eliminated its loan requirement in student aid. This February, Harvard announced it would no longer require a family contribution from families earning less than $40,000 a year. And Brown, having already gotten rid of its first-year work-study requirement, announced in September that a new endowed scholarship fund would also eliminate loans for many of its neediest students.

The University has responded by noting that its aid packages have improved over recent years and are far less dependent on student loans than those of other schools. It’s true: Compared to most other American universities, Yale offers a very good financial aid program. But Yale does not compete with most other American universities. And we believe that when held up to the lofty standards the University sets for itself in other areas, Yale’s financial aid policies fall short.

This week, Yale President Richard Levin characterized the changes at Princeton as a “PR move,” noting that they made little practical difference in the amounts students must contribute. Perhaps that is accurate: What Harvard, Brown and Princeton have done is, in part, symbolic. But in this case, symbolism matters. Making a public commitment to easing the burden of financial aid recipients sends an important message that no student should turn down Yale because he cannot afford it.

Still, symbolism is not enough. Yale should not just catch up to its peer institutions when it comes to financial aid, but surpass them. To do so, the University must commit to reducing and eventually eliminating both the family and student contributions from its neediest students. This next step will be an expensive endeavor, but it is one Yale should make a priority.

In part, the issue is one of fairness: As it currently stands, the system is inherently inequitable. If your parents can afford a Yale education, congratulations — you can spend your time at Yale however you choose. If not, you must balance your classes and your life outside of school with a job or else take on debt.

But reducing the burden on students who receive financial aid does far more than help those recipients. It makes Yale a better place. If ever a student chooses Princeton or Harvard because he believes those schools are more affordable, we all lose. We lose those students who were admitted precisely because they could make a contribution to life on campus that goes well beyond what they could earn in a summer job. We lose the opportunity to create a more diverse campus, one where students from prep schools and underfunded public schools are more equally represented. And we lose the chance to create a University that definitively states that students of modest means will be treated the same as those who grow up amidst privilege.

Eliminating required contributions from Yale’s neediest students and their families would be a bold statement. But when it comes to financial aid, it may well be Yale’s turn to be bold.

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