Elite Universities Don’t Understand Financial Hardship

Many elite universities seek out poor, but smart students, for the sake of diversity, and they go to some lengths to seek them out and reassure them that they, too, can go to, say, Stanford or Harvard, even if they don’t have the $60,000 a year it takes to go there.

However, all I see to letting such students know it’s accessible is a promise of financial aid. Being one of those families who is unhappily foreseeing a lot of correspondence with financial aid offices — at any university which accepts my son, public or private — I boggle at the thought that university officials think it’s as simple as having someone fill in a form and having them dole out some money, commensurate to what said form discloses.

First of all, previews of such forms show them to be complicated and intrusive. And the first form of all is not one for a grant, but rather for scary federal student loans, which carry a high rate of interest, and are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. So if you don’t have the $200,000 saved up for a degree, you can borrow that fantastic sum of money, and try to set it aside, bit by bit, for the rest of your life — on the suspect assumption that straight out of college you’ll have a career which pays you enough to make your own way in life and pay off a huge loan. Hm, being a doctor is supposedly one of the most lucrative professions there is, but I know doctors pushing 50 still paying off the end of their student loans. It’s not a prospect I like for my son.

Plus, how do you fill out such forms if, say, your parents don’t file taxes, or don’t have verifiable income? I know it’s illegal, but I’ll confess my mother, an East German refugee, pathologically feared the IRS forms, and preferred to have whatever income she got garnished instead. And there are those who don’t earn enough to pay taxes, but who also won’t accept government assistance, for reasons of pride, or living under the radar. A form asking one to fill out forms so the IRS can release your tax records to a school, or wondering how many houses you have, is pure gibberish for many families.

And beyond that, it’s not just money barring the impoverished bright kid from matriculating at MIT. Even at a young age, there are many children whose families rely on their support. There are small family businesses who rely on family members lending a helping hand. Or sick parents or grandparents who need the kind of extra care no home health aide could ever provide. Sure, getting the attention, support, and friendships at an elite school will springboard a child from such a family into a more lucrative lifestyle, but there’s a personal cost, in abadoning — even temporarily — those who need you while you enjoy a halcyon world of catered meals and unbelievably posh fitness centers.

And last, but not least, the “rack rate” cost of college tuition is downright off-putting in itself. When your family’s gross annual income is lower that the annual cost of attending an institution, it all but screams “your kind does not belong here.” The implication is that most people who go there can afford that price, but you are the charity case who will have to make up the difference by washing dishes and mucking out cages in front of your financial betters. And it’s made even worse by the fact that the “rich” families who pay full fare may have preferred their money go to other causes than subsidizing other people’s kids’ educations. Why can’t the elite schools forego the latest climbing wall or poor-student-acquistion officer and roll the difference into a discount for all?

In contrast, take a look at what San Jose State University does. It’s not as selective as a private college, and students get on waitlists for a seat in classrooms already packed with 40 or 200 students, and the difficulty of getting a spot in all your classes in all the right semesters means many students drop out or take more than 4 years to finish their degrees. But it’s much more accessible to the middle class and lower middle class students, some of whom already work to support themselves and cover their tuition by working 20 or more hours a week.

For instance, recently, the university experimented with some (hybrid) online classes. A San Jose State instructor streamed each lecture online, where the student could access it at any time, and send back the classwork electronically. The final exam was proctored on-campus. It gave students time flexibility, as well as an instructor who could be found on campus during his or her office hours, and best of all, it cost a fraction of what an on-campus course would cost. (It’s had a rocky start, however, since not all departments like this model.)

Students from Tau Beta Phi also told me the university will soon offer a 7-year engineering degree. Who would want to go to college for seven years? I thought. But it’s not uncommon at San Jose State for some of the students to have full time jobs, and this model allows such students to finish the degree instead of having to pick it up in pieces here and there as patches of unemployment or downtime allow.

Personally, I graduated from a posh college (with the help of lots of financial aid). So I can vouch for the non-academic advantages you enjoy at a private college, such as uncrowded swimming pool lanes; nice students with amusingly different problems than yours, as in worrying about meeting the Queen of England at their mom’s luncheon; a lot more academic freedom to go in any intellectual direction; and professors who know and support you, so much that I continued to stay in touch with several, personally and professionally. But it’s also an educational model based on the assumption you can afford to take four years (or more) years off from life in order to build the foundation for something better. And while that model still worked in the 1980s when college cost a lot less and it was easier to get a job straight out of college, it’s not a model that works for those on the lower end of the economic scale, not at today’s tuition prices, and not with today’s economy.

If elite schools are sincere about having schools based purely on merit, they may have to retool their model and/or their costs to be truly egalitarian. Or we may see a divide which takes us back to the 1920s, wherein only the well-to-do were able to send their children off for a higher education — at a handful of top schools, where one is exempt from “real life,” and ambitious souls without such blessings go to the modern equivalent of night school, in the form of public colleges with flexible schedules, online courses, and vocational education.

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