Aid, not tuition, can provide rallying point

For anyone at Yale who’s ever broken down how much tuition we pay for each lecture we sleep through, Tuesday’s announcement about next year’s term bill brought some perverse relief.

Next year’s bill will grow by the lowest percentage increase in the past five years: by 4.5 percent, to the shockingly unaffordable $45,000.

But Tuesday brought some other news that put the tuition announcement into some perspective. Students in the Eli Whitney Program, for older students whose family or work obligations kept them from getting their degrees in a traditional timeframe, will for the first time have access to Yale’s financial aid program, a move meant to improve accessibility and better integrate the Whitney students into the full Yale experience.

The Whitney announcement calls attention to the most important factor in measuring the true cost of Yale and, hint, it’s not the number 45,000. Saying that Yale next year will cost $45,000 tells only part of the story. More accurately, Yale tuition operates on a sliding scale — financial aid — where the top of the scale is $45,000, and the bottom of the scale is $0, for families with incomes under $45,000. The most recent aid changes tweaked the scale, waiving summer contributions for those working abroad and reducing family contributions for those with income between $45,000 and $60,000.

In its idealized form, financial aid enables families to pay what they can, with wealthier families paying in full or, with the nudging of the Development Office, in excess, and lower-income families paying as much as possible but no more. Of course, as anyone who’s read Plato could point out, the ideal is the impossible. Families and administrators will always tussle over just how much a family can afford to pay, and students who need to work during the year to meet their student contribution will always have an additional stress on their schedule.

While student lobbying is of debatable effectiveness, financial aid spending is one area in which student activism can have an impact, by trying to move the debate over the cost of higher education away from a preoccupation with the number at the top and toward a focus on the overall effectiveness and flexibility of the sliding scale. Gas prices will continue to rise, faculty salaries must remain competitive, and endowment spending will likely remain conservative to ensure the institution’s long-term stability — students are unlikely to have an impact on these givens. But the amount of aid that must be taken as a loan, the number of hours a week that must be worked, and the availability of aid for middle-class families — these are changeable. By constantly calling attention to the need for better aid, students could inspire alumni to donate money to Yale earmarked for aid, or encourage the Yale administration to use improvements in aid as a way to improve its yield rates and, for example, offset the gamble Yale will be taking next year on its Early Action admits.

Accept that Yale’s term bill will always be pricey, but don’t think that this bill means Yale has to grow less accessible each year — provided that aid grows appropriately.

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