I have always had the utmost respect for Princeton as an undergraduate institution. Say what you will about its undergraduates, its graduate programs or the diversity and culture of the community as a whole, but the teaching college at Nassau Hall shames its counterpart in Cambridge and even has a few things to teach to those of us in New Haven.
Admittedly, much of this strength is an accident of history. While others spent countless millions and years building their colleges into universities, Princeton stubbornly rested on its undergraduate laurels. This worked for many years and will continue to work for quite a few more, but the Tigers may soon find themselves destined to become also-rans. Princeton’s claim that it chooses to focus on its undergraduates was true 50 years ago; today it rings hollow for it no longer has any other choices. Its jewel in the crown happens to be the crown itself.
Nassau Hall has waited too long to commit in a game where there is a first-mover advantage. The Yale Medical School, the building of which nearly bankrupted the university, and the Yale Law School cannot be bought for five, eight or even 10 billion dollars. (19 billion perhaps, but not a paltry eight.) They must be built over time, and Princeton’s leadership never had the foresight or the will to rise to the next level.
There is no doubt the undergraduate school is the heart of any university — a belief Harvard abandoned long ago — but a university must also have a body. Indeed, Princeton has become increasingly nervous as it finds its position in the Ivy triumvirate being compromised by the likes of Stanford, which has become a force to be reckoned with despite its late birth.
But our colleagues in orange and black do have one thing in their favor. Without the burdens of building a university, Princeton has both time and money on its hands. Unable to attract a more diverse group of students it has, over the last few years, been moving towards enticing them through financial incentives rather than through making their university more attractive.
The benefits of higher education accrue mainly to the recipient, and financial aid is to ensure that, burdensome as the loans may be, people at least have the choice to attend. It is not a tool to increase short run competitiveness. Princeton’s move is indeed an enormous philosophical departure from the past. It no longer has a policy based on need but one based on want.
Yale’s relief for middle-income families rested on the belief the families were genuinely being caught in a position of being able to pay, but still not really afford to send their children to New Haven. Princeton’s aid is based on the hope that by being not just affordable, but more affordable, it can attract people who have other choices. For Yale to come up with a policy as ill conceived, it would have to extend additional grants to applicants from the West Coast in an attempt to lure them away from Stanford and others.
What we are seeing is the start of a price war among a group of non-profit organizations. Now that Princeton has crossed the line, I can only suggest the next time it has a windfall, it should grant $5,000 annually to the 60 percent of its undergraduates not already on financial aid. It is a $15 million package that would no doubt make Princeton much more competitive. Add a few million more for graduate stipends, and it’s off to the races. Or is it?
That Princeton officials believe they can buy their way out of their strategic dilemma is mind-boggling. It suggests they still have not come to appreciate the complexity of the problem facing their institution. Or perhaps they are resigned to it and are merely buying time.
Whatever it is, we should forgive our old friends, for without any strategic inspiration they genuinely do not know what else to do. But at the end of it all, Princeton will be no stronger, and many of the Ivies will have squandered precious funds that would have been better spent on long-term initiatives. Yale, which has benefited in recent years from its return to financial health and Harvard’s general lack of vision, stands to lose the most in this mud sling. With its long list of challenging but addressable weaknesses, Yale must spend wisely if it is to capitalize on its opportunities.
Many students’ lives would be much easier if everyone followed Princeton’s lead. Indeed, Yale may eventually be forced to respond. What a shame that would be.
K.C. Tan graduated from Silliman College in 1999.