Financial Aid at Top Private Universities May Be Kiss of Death for Public Schools

| Tue Feb. 26, 2008 7:38 PM EST

Last week Stanford University jumped on the ever-growing financial aid bandwagon, announcing the the school would extend support to middle- and upper-middle-class income families—a trend initiated by Harvard University and one that is quickly being adopted by top universities nationwide. Whether prestigious universities with bulging endowments are spreading the wealth to level the playing field for the socioeconomically disadvantaged or to gain prestige to further pad their endowments, lessening the financial burden of higher education is undeniably a great direction in which to head.

What's worrisome about this recent trend is what it implies for public universities around the nation, whose student bodies represent more diverse and democratic socioeconomic backgrounds. At UC Berkeley—a state school with bragging rights of its own for its quality of faculty, students, and research—the estimated cost of attendance (including tuition, room and board, and additional fees) is $25,000. This, of course, isn't cheap, but with Stanford's and many other top universities' estimated cost of attendance topping out at an astronomical $50,000, it has always seemed like a bargain.

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These differences in tuition have meant that strong public universities could lure top students to attend their schools. But with the influx of generous financial aid incentives being rapidly implemented at top-tier schools, an education at a state school could now cost more than one at Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or Princeton. At this rate, tuition could easily be made free for all students and schools like Harvard would still have plenty of dough to spare.

Such competition would squeeze resources at public universities as they would be forced to reduce tuition or increase aid to compete with new financial assistance standards. This would result in reduced faculty salaries, reduced research facilities, and a decrease in the number of students admitted, which could drain the pool of talent. I'm not advocating for less financial aid, but the private school gifting trend fails to address the root of the problem—which lies in the road to acceptance at these esteemed universities.

The cost of higher education today is just simply unreasonable. And with the Ivies leading the financial aid battle, many deserving students now well-served by public universities could be left with the short end of the stick. If that shift occurs, what will the landscape of higher education look like? My guess is that it may drive further the socioeconomic inequities associated with education that these financial aid policies are hoping to overturn in the first place. Education shouldn't be a privilege reserved for only the "best and brightest," those who can pay their way, or the small fraction of socioeconomically advantaged students that have been able to gain acceptance into the hallowed halls of these universities. Rather, these well-endowed universities should be targeting the history of educational disadvantages associated with socioeconomic status. Fixing the system may involve universities examining economic status before admission, or congress stepping in and passing bills for funding. But before all that, what needs to be broken down is a culture that maintains a doggedly narrow and naive perception of meritocracy.

—Joyce Tang