Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Tuition Game

I have a column in today's USA Today called "The Tuition Game." The piece talks about recent big changes in financial aid at some elite colleges, and the self-help requirement. My point is basically that -- given the size of endowments at elite universities these days, and their newly generous aid packages -- it's interesting that these colleges still drum students themselves for token contributions. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, etc., all require that kids on financial aid work 7-12 hours per week, and often over the summer, to contribute financially to their own education.

Let me say right up front that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. One of the reasons I think kids don't take high school so seriously is they don't have to work to pay for it. I fully approve of kids working while going to college. But given that elite colleges don't need the money a kid working 10 hours a week will cough up, it's important to realize that this is a philosophical choice more than anything else. Elite colleges believe that kids on financial aid should work in the cafeteria, answer phones at the campus center, deliver newspapers, or whatever other jobs are available on campus in order to earn their keep.

But if Harvard, Yale, and the others believe it's good for kids on aid to work to pay for their education, why don't they think all kids should work for their education? One of the biggest benefits of an elite education is the connections you forge with classmates during non-class hours. If kids on aid are working all the time, and wealthier kids are not, it contributes to an already-too-prevalent class divide on elite campuses.

I'd like to see these elite colleges require everyone to work to earn their keep. There's no reason not to; tuition represents only about 60% of the cost of a student's education at private universities, so every student is -- to some degree-- on financial aid. I see no reason that there should be a distinction between kids on obvious financial aid and those on less obvious aid. Furthermore, private colleges can ask for whatever they want. They could require all students to learn origami for graduation if they felt like it. You can always go elsewhere.

For an example of a college that does have a work requirement, I highlight Berea College in Kentucky. This fascinating institution has less of a class divide issue because, well, all students are from families earning less than about $50,000 a year. The college charges no tuition, and to keep costs low, asks all students to work what comes out to about 10-15 hours a week. Berea administrators have found that this requirement boosts community and keeps students academically engaged. On the whole, I think those are pretty good outcomes.


Anonymous said...

Another example of this is Barnard College, the sister college of Columbia.

Anonymous said...

And yet another example is Alice Lloyd college in Pippa Passes, KY. I attended Alice Lloyd for a semester in 1990 and It was less than a positive experience for me. They require all students to participate in work study, but the student has no control over what job they are asked to do.

In many situations this becomes demoralizing as students are asked to do the dirtiest of jobs for the prescribed amount of time a day and watch as thier classmates spend the same amount of time in more desirable jobs all for the same "pay". I have pay in quotations because you never actually see a paycheck from the college.

My friends who attended Berea all had much better college work study experiances. But at Berea, you have a say in which job you do AND you get a paycheck which you then pay the college with. These may seem like small arguments, but it really makes a world of difference to the student.

I just wanted to make the point that all work study programs are not created equal. Berea has a wonderful reputation for it's successful work study program and Alice Llyod has a reputaion for taking advantage of poor students.

Victoria said...

What about students who are already working off-campus, or who may have kids or families to take care of?

The latter may not apply to all that many students at elite universities; I don't know (I went to a big state school and knew more than a few people who were returning to school after having been out for a while, many of whom were on some sort of financial aid). But I know that during some semesters I was able to get more interesting and better-paying work off-campus than on-campus --- sometimes the time equivalent of a full-time job, when I was working more than one part-time job. And I knew other folks who were involved with start-ups during their college years. Not to mention people who were involved with community groups and non-university art and theater projects that took up a substantial amount of time.

I agree with your argument that if this is a philosophical choice on the administration's part about the nature of non-academic work, then there's no reason that wealthy students who need no financial aid should be exempted. But I think that having this sort of policy without any flexibility isn't a great idea.