David Leonhardt turns in an unsatisfactory cover story in the Times Education Life supplement today about recent high-profile moves by elite universities to offer more generous financial aid to low- and middle-income students. Its starts with a dramatic moment in 2003, set in one of higher education’s iconic spaces, the Thomas Jefferson-designed Rotunda of the University of Virginia. Just as a high-level meeting is about to start, the UVA President Casteen is handed a note from the press office: the University of North Carolina has just announced a new aid program for low-income students:
The program touched a nerve with Mr. Casteen. The son of a shipyard worker from Portsmouth, in the southeastern corner of the state, he was the first member of his family to attend college. But during his 13 years as president, tuition had risen significantly, as it had at many colleges, and the Virginia campus had become even more dominated by upper-middle-class students. North Carolina’s new policy, which had the potential to lure students away from Virginia, could aggravate the situation.
Before the meeting had ended, Mr. Casteen announced to the room that he wanted the financial-aid staff to come up with a response. He wanted it quickly, he said, and he wanted something bigger than what North Carolina was doing. Four months later, at the board’s next meeting, it approved a plan that was similar but somewhat more generous than North Carolina’s. Making sure everyone had a chance to attend college, Mr. Casteen would say, was “a fundamental obligation of a free culture.”
The article goes on to describe similar announcements in subsequent years from the likes of Harvard, Yale and others, chronicling an escalating oneupsmanship of generosity.
Expanding the pool of aid recipients may also make the policies more popular among students. It would be rather counterproductive if the children of midlevel corporate executives, who were paying $50,000 in tuition and fees, ended up resenting the children of police officers, who were paying nothing.
Is that what we’re worried about now? Not enflaming class resentment among the children of corporate executives? That doesn’t say much for the influence of an elite college education, does it?