On Monday, The New York Times reported that many elite colleges and universities around the country are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their commitments to generous financial aid packages. Wesleyan University has had to rescind its policy of admitting all candidates regardless of financial need, Williams College and Dartmouth College have begun including loans in financial aid packages, and Grinnell College is considering cutbacks as well. With college endowment growth just about flat across the United States last year, it seems that only the wealthiest universities like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and a few others are insulated from the financial stagnation that has brought trouble to so many peer institutions.
Yet while it is troubling to hear of any cut to university financial aid, this development serves ultimately to highlight the fact that most American college students don’t have the privilege of worrying about whether aid programs at elite universities are rolled back. For the sake of both the affected students at Wesleyan as well as the millions of students at public universities and community colleges, our federal government must prioritize direct aid to college students.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, states have found it increasingly difficult to maintain support for public universities. Ohio State, Penn State, and the University of Michigan receive less than seven percent of their funding from their respective states. To make up the difference, our public universities are forced to rely on out-of-state students who pay private-school prices and crowd out in-state applicants. Public universities, which are generally more affordable than all but the wealthiest private universities and which produce a majority of our college graduates, must not be allowed to whither. The increasing wage gap between college-educated and high-school educated workers means that the United States cannot afford to let even public universities cease to be affordable for aspiring students.
In light of both the persistent strain on our colleges and universities and the “fiscal cliff” negotiations currently consuming Washington, it is essential that our leaders prioritize aid to students. Pell Grants, student loans, and community college support undoubtedly count among the best possible investments we can make today to ensure economic competitiveness in the future. President Obama has proven his commitment to helping students by keeping student loan interest rates low, expanding the Pell Grant program, and setting ambitious goals for community college enrolment. We hope that these policies survive through January, since increasing college enrollment is vital to maintaining the United States’ competitive edge.
While it is sad to watch excellent universities struggle to meet their financial aid goals, we must remember that many more students are served by public universities and community colleges, which very often cannot meet students’ full financial need. For this reason, direct federal aid to students is an essential component of our national effort to produce a competitive workforce with good wages.