Let me tell you an open secret: In 1989, the Justice Department of the United States filed a civil antitrust lawsuit against all eight Ivy League schools and MIT under the Sherman Antitrust Act for collusion in the determination of need for financial aid students. The schools had been meeting every spring to discuss how much money they believed commonly admitted students could afford to pay for college. The Justice Department decided that this practice amounted to price fixing, and eventually all eight Ivy League schools signed a consent agreement with the department in 1991 not to engage in the activity. (MIT refused to admit culpability.)
Let me tell you another open secret: After several years of lobbying the federal government, MIT won a “temporary exemption” from Sherman antitrust prosecution for universities that award aid on a “need-blind basis” to establish jointly a set of common principles to determine financial need. The resulting legislation came in the form of Section 568 of the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, and four years later, the 568 Presidents’ Group formed under the statute’s protection.
Since then, the group has worked to develop a set of “common principles” that standardize the determination of financial need among participating universities. During the initial 1991 prosecution of the Ivy League schools, the universities claimed that different aid determinations bred competition between the schools over applicants, which meant the schools concentrated more money in fewer students. This competition, according to the schools, meant less evenly spread financial aid money, and by extension, fewer financial aid students overall. Currently, the 568 Group comprises 28 full members, including nearly all of the nation’s most elite universities and every Ivy League school except two: Princeton and Harvard.
That Princeton and Harvard are not members of the group is significant for this reason: The average graduating loan burden of Yale’s main rivals ($4,370 and $8,769, respectively, in 2005) is lower than that of every single school in the 568 Group. So you’d expect Yale to rank first among the group members, right? Wrong. With an average debt burden of $10,753, Williams touts the lowest figures of the 568 Group, followed by Pomona, Wellesley, Amherst, Swarthmore, Rice and then Yale (at $14,306 in 2005, the last year in which figures are available for all schools). While the 2005 numbers admittedly place Yale in front of Stanford (not a 568 Group member) and the other five Ivies in the group, early anecdotal reports from this year suggest that Stanford’s and Columbia’s revamped aid programs might give Yale a run for its money.
568 Group members maintain their innocence by pointing to a recent GAO report which could not find evidence “that exempting our institutions from antitrust laws has stifled competition or that there has been any collusion aimed at reducing student aid expenditures at member institutions,” according to Morton Schapiro, the group’s chairman and president of Williams College. Perhaps not, but the GAO did find that tuition skyrocketed at a rate of 13 percent among member institutions, while financial aid spending rose by a meager six percent. This sets the group at odds with non-member four-year private institutions, where tuition increases kept pace with increases in financial aid spending at seven percent over five years. The GAO also reported that the 568 Group has made no significant increases in grant aid spending for low-income students, although loan dollars have increased sharply. All this during the period of five years in which Princeton implemented its monumental “all grants, no loans” financial aid program.
Whatever the reality behind the shady facade of the 568 Group, Yale faces a decision between loyalty to the 568 Group and catching up to its historical competitors, Princeton and Harvard. Although only 41 percent of the Yale community directly receives financial aid money, every single Yale student suffers when we lose a student to Harvard or Princeton over financial aid. As a community of institutions, elite universities value socioeconomic diversity not just out of obligation to groups that this country has traditionally oppressed, but also because liberal arts education thrives in an environment rife with as many different ideas, values and beliefs as possible. The intellectual welfare of the college will improve vastly as we bring new perspectives into the fold, and likewise will it decline as we lose these students to our main rivals.
Despite rapid improvements in financial aid over the last 30 years, socioeconomic diversity remains in critical condition on the campuses of the nation’s elite colleges. Among the United States’ top 146 schools, 74 percent of students come from the top income quartile, and only four percent from the bottom income quartile. President Levin’s insistence on legacy admissions only hurts Yale on this front. I applaud Yale’s Ambassadors Program, designed to increase awareness about higher education to low-income high-school students, but this effort seems at least illogical, if not disingenuous, without an aid campaign as aggressive as its rivals’ programs.
With a financial aid program befitting its status as a peer of Harvard and Princeton, Yale would simultaneously enrich its own academic community and benefit the community at large by leading the fight against socioeconomic inequalities.
Andrew Williamson is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. He is a member of Yale Students for Financial Aid Reform.