For the last eight months, Yale has wrestled to find a middle ground between the bold financial aid reforms penned at Princeton, Harvard and MIT, and its historic reservations about entering an endless bidding war over students. The wait for a response was long and at times administrators here appeared more defensive than imaginative.
In the end, the president and the Corporation chose to stand by their principles while meeting the demands of the ferociously competitive market of Ivy League financial aid. The comprehensive package of reforms unveiled Wednesday will cut the average student self-help contribution by one-third — or more than $13,780 over four years. Yale will offer freshmen and sophomores on financial aid a flat grant of $2,320; juniors and seniors a grant of $4,520.
But more significantly, the new policy allows students to apply those grants to summer work, term-time labor and loans, broadening the very definition of what is known as student contribution. It is an innovation worthy of Yale’s reputation, late though it was.
The reforms offer a degree of flexibility unique among financial aid policies within the Ivy League. Princeton’s financial aid reforms, by comparison, require cumbersome work during the academic year to offset the cost of across-the-board grants. Harvard’s plan combines work and loans, but does not permit the use of its new $2,000 grants toward expected summer earnings, meaning employment must be directed towards tuition.
The very idea of need-blind admissions in higher education has undergone a redefinition in the last year. Princeton’s announcement in January that it would replace all student loans with outright scholarships bulldozed a longstanding principle that understands tuition as a shared burden between a family and a college. Princeton replaced that partnership with a unilateral guarantee that what families could not afford, it would singularly wipe away with its own checkbook. Harvard soon joined the fray. Then MIT.
Yale President Richard Levin and Provost Alison Richard carped that the reforms threatened to spiral into an ugly round of one-upsmanship. But Yale could not longer ignore the message behind the reforms: The tradition of “co-investment ” between family and college, as Dean Richard Brodhead called it Wednesday, is no longer enough.
That very euphemism — co-investment — has always belied a system that creates yawning disparities in post-graduation debt. The idea of students, parents and a college in financial partnership to bankroll towering term bills is a noble proposition in the abstract. In practice, it creates two tiers of students: one that graduates debt-free, another that enters the job market saddled by crippling loans.
The revision of the self-help model in Yale’s financial aid policy levels the playing field. Students can graduate debt-free, a freedom that will allow all seniors to choose the career of their choice rather then one based on fulfilling loan payments. That flexibility delivers on the promise of equal opportunity that a Yale education must guarantee.