Thursday, March 6, 2008

Who's Paying? And How?

I have a couple of friends who are looking at colleges they might like to attend. They and their parents have been looking at all of the options, and I consider their mother Carole one of the best-read and best-researched people on the subject.

So when I read "Brown Ends Tuition for Lower-Income Students," (New York Times, February 25, 2008) I wasn't sure whether to choke or cheer. So I called Carole instead.

This might have been my first exposure to tuition waiver, but it wasn't hers. She said parents find many schools offering more financing options. Brown, for example, is waiving the $37,000 annual tuition for students whose parents make $60,000 or less.

Harvard waives tuition for students whose parents make $60,000 or less and charges only a percentage of tuition to those whose parents make between $120,000 and $180,000 a year. (No word on waiting room and board cost of about $11,000 a year.)

I'm thrilled, and it makes me want to enroll at Harvard. Actually, Georgetown has a fabulous-sounding Ph.D. program in English literature, but because tuition would have cost twice the purchase price of my car -- per year-- I didn't apply.

As fabulous as that sounds, I began to wonder how schools could do that. How do schools fund the financing packages, grants, scholarships and other funding options for low-income students?

Maybe it's the endowments and other fundraising ("Wealth Gap Growing Bigger Among American Colleges," New York Times, February 20, 2008). Nope, Congress is trying to make the universities spend those funds. If Harvard could collect $614 million in a single year, maybe the university could afford to pay tuition for the deserving poor.

Of course, if enough people actually pay $37,000 to attend Brown or $45,000 to attend Harvard, I suppose the "paying" students could fund their fellow students' tuition.

I attended community colleges and state universities, none of which offer tuition absolution. (Of course, with these schools receiving less in funding from the state in every passing year, how could they?)

College is becoming a luxury for far too many people -- a luxury students and their families cannot afford to pass up. By the time I finished graduate school, the cost of in-state tuition was the same as it would have been for out-of-state tuition only five years before (and I took five years because I paid as I went and assume a couple of student loans).

There are too many horror stories of people going tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt for their college educations. These are not the wealthy who assumed student loans for "beer money." Now, with the credit "crisis," many financial institutions are not loaning to students ("Creidt Cirsis May Make College Loans More Costly," The Washington Post, March 3, 2008).

Unless you're one of the few Ivy Leaguers whose tuition is gratis, college may be moving out of reach. How in the world can we fix such a system?

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