Yale administrators are feeling more heat in the wake of Harvard University’s response last week to Princeton University’s bold financial aid move — but still are not relenting in their position to maintain the status quo until the issue is examined thoroughly.

Officials remain convinced that a quick reply to Princeton’s “no-loan” initiative without further deliberation would be imprudent and are willing to accept criticism in the meantime. The conservative approach is also guided by a belief that Princeton’s decision was not particularly wise and that a major Yale response would trigger a budget deficit, administrative sources said.

“It’s much more important to do what’s right, not just to be first,” Yale President Richard Levin said.

As a result, Yale is a conspicuous holdout in the Ivy League financial aid battle, started by Princeton with its no-loan policy announcement in late January, and fueled by Harvard’s beefed-up award system, which was revealed last week. Unlike 1998, when Princeton announced a sweeping change in financial aid and Yale responded within weeks, this time Yale has not been quick to follow. But despite falling behind in the financial aid game, officials at Yale and elsewhere do not expect to see any significant change in Ivy League admissions for the Class of 2005.

Philosophical debate

Yale’s wait-and-see approach is largely grounded in tacit opposition to Princeton’s new policy. Administrators have said that the no-loan rule undermined the long-held principle that students should be held accountable for at least some part of their higher education, which serves to benefit them in the future.

There has also some been some suggestion, from Yale and elsewhere in the Ivy League, that Princeton’s move may not be based wholly on idealistic notions about undergraduate financial aid.ÊSources said Princeton’s historic inability relative to Yale and Harvard to attract minority applicants, especially those from lower income groups, and criticism Princeton received to that effect, was also a reason for the new policy.

Regardless of Princeton’s true motives, Yale officials, including Levin and Provost Alison Richard, Yale’s chief academic and financial officer, said they greatly prefer the system adopted by Harvard, which reduces the financial burden on students while giving them the option to either work off their assessed share while enrolled in school or take out loans in the same amount.

Budget crunch

Compounding any philosophical reservations administrators have is Yale’s delicate budget situation.

Administrators determined that it was too late in the year to devote a large portion of the budget to boost financial aid.

Princeton’s plan cost over $5 million and Harvard’s exceeded $8 million. Both of those moves were planned well in advance, giving officials at the two schools months to adjust the budget numbers as necessary.

Yale, which was not planning any type of financial aid move beyond its new need-blind admissions status for international students, could not decide spontaneously to follow Princeton and Harvard.

Levin said recently that the University would probably have to run a budget deficit for the first time in several years in order to follow suit. Officials have also expressed opposition to adjusting Yale’s endowment spending rule.

Yale remains scarred by years of budget turmoil, when the University ran deficits and deferred maintenance in order to balance budgets, Deputy Provost Charles Long said.

Several administrators have indicated that if Yale had gotten wind of Princeton’s and Harvard’s plans in the fall, the current situation might be different.

The admissions picture

The University will be able to assess the consequences of its inaction within months as high school seniors nationwide weigh similar, but likely noticeably different, financial aid packages.

Some believe the decision to postpone a response could hurt Yale’s yield rate this year, but officials from Yale and Harvard are not sure if the lack of action will have any notable repercussions.

Harvard Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis said that the Ivy League admissions picture will not change.

“We’ve all had concerns about the perception of students that if they chose our college they would either have to assume too much indebtedness or work too much, but in my professional lifetime, Yale has always been a bargain,” McGrath Lewis said. “There’s not a problem with the quality of classes Yale is enrolling and there’s no problem waiting around the corner.”

One Yale official said that from a purely competitive standpoint, a hasty response to Princeton’s move would be akin to spending $8 million on about 50 students — half of the approximately 100 who choose between Yale and Princeton annually — which would be “ridiculous.”

Administrators believe that money is better spent on academic programs that benefit students or withheld until further deliberation on financial aid is complete. Officials are quick to point to what the University has recently done to improve financial aid and make Yale more attractive to lower-income students, including a major 1998 initiative that followed a similar Princeton move.

Yale’s image

Yale officials, on the whole, are also not particularly concerned about the financial aid situation’s impact on building the University’s image as a follower rather than a leader.

“I doubt anybody’s going to spend any time in asking in what order financial aid was changed,” Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said.

But that reasoning is tempered by the universal admission that Yale pays close attention to what other institutions do.

“This becomes a sort of game played on an elite level,” a Yale financial aid officer said. “The more schools do to match each other, the more they’ll have to do [beyond that]. It becomes a spiraling effect.”