BLACKMON: Don’t index us to unaffordability

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Regardless of whom you vote for in the runoff election for Yale College Council president, your candidate of choice supports the idea of indexing the student income contribution portion of Yale’s financial aid package to a consistent standard that would make future increases in the SIC predictable from year to year.

BlackmonTFor Michael Herbert ’16, whose campaign first proposed this idea, the standard of choice is the Consumer Price Index, a basket of goods whose collective price acts as a convenient measure of inflation.

For Leah Motzkin ’16, CPI is one option, but her campaign is open to other measures like the campus minimum wage or even an arbitrary percentage consistent from year to year.

Both approaches, however, will ultimately harm the very students they are trying to protect.

It’s easy to see why such an approach might make sense: As Herbert himself points out in a graphic released by his campaign on social media, had the SIC been linked to CPI beginning in 2008, low-income students would face a total SIC (including term-time work expectations) of $5,343 rather than the current $6,400. To be sure, low-income students, myself included, have scrambled to afford these arbitrary increases.

But, in truth, there is more to those numbers than either candidate admits.

First of all, it’s important to understand the difference here between nominal and real costs. If we tie the SIC to inflation, we will increase the nominal cost of education automatically every year, but the real cost will stay the same. If we freeze the SIC at current levels, the nominal price will stay the same, but real costs will decrease each year.

With that distinction in mind, using an index now creates two major problems. First, since the administration increased the nominal cost of education even higher than inflation over the last few years, implementing an index now would lock in the real cost of education at its current unaffordable level, making what might have been a temporary problem a permanent one.

Second, and more importantly, locking in real costs with an index would prevent Yale from making any further progress on extending the dream of a Yale degree to low-income students. Over the last few decades, beginning with President Kingman Brewster and especially with President Rick Levin, Yale has made dramatic progress in bringing down the real cost of education for low-income students, eventually leading to Yale’s famous promise, “Families whose total gross income is less than $65,000 are not expected to make any financial contribution towards their child’s Yale education.”

Thus, even if Herbert and Motzkin’s consensus might curb growth in the short-run, it will be catastrophic in the long run, as Yale would no longer have the flexibility to decrease the real cost of the student income contribution in fair economic climates.

In short, we are having the wrong debate. We should be talking about how Yale will be able to emerge from the recession and the current deficit crisis and still reduce the real cost of education for low-income students every year, as has been the tradition generally over the last few decades, if not in the last few years. Instead, we have assumed for some reason that Yale should halt its progress and keep real costs the same.

Quite frankly, I’ve given up on the affordability of my own college experience. Despite all promises to the contrary, I will graduate Yale with thousands of dollars of debt in the hopes that somewhere on the other side of graduation a job awaits me that will help me climb out of debt.

But we shouldn’t hamstring future students to the same levels of unaffordability that we must endure in 2014 just because we are currently grappling with an ongoing recession and crippling budget deficits.

To that end, I challenge both candidates to expand their horizons. If President Salovey is true to his rhetoric about socio-economic status, it is likely that five years from now the University will find itself on more solid economic footing and can be more generous with financial aid, perhaps surpassing even Harvard’s generous policies. At that time, a rigid index would prevent the University from bringing down the real cost of education any further for future financial aid recipients.

Let’s not sacrifice long-term progress for short-term political points.

Tyler Blackmon is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at tyler.blackmon@yale.edu .

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