The new wave in financial aid

Apr 20, 2008 • Karen

You probably heard about Harvard's new financial aid system. If you didn't, go read. As much as I hate Hahvahd, it's pretty extraordinary, even if they are only doing it to avoid uncomfortable questions from Congress about their obscenely big endowment. (They could give a free ride to every student and they wouldn't run out of money for 100 years.)

Basically: any family making $60,000 or less goes to Harvard for free. Anywhere from there to $180,000, you pay a percentage of your income somewhere between zero to ten percent. A family making $120,000/year pays $12,000 for Harvard. Jesus Christ, my family makes significantly less than that yet year after year the FAFSA told me that my parents could realistically cough up like $50,000! Goddammit do I hate the FAFSA.

Like so many other things, other schools are following Harvard's lead. A number of other liberal arts colleges have also announced explicit income floors below which you don't have to pay a cent. The competitors haven't beaten Harvard in the price war, but it does mark the first reduction in the effective price of college in what seems like centuries. Meanwhile, tons of liberal arts colleges, unable or unwilling to provide income floors but still needing to compete, are now guaranteeing loan-free financial aid packages. As far as I'm considered, these are mostly bullshit, in that you'll still have to take out loans when/if the financial aid office thinks you can afford more than what your parents are willing to pay. Assuming that you *do* qualify for financial aid in the first place, this just gets rid of a (at Swarthmore) $4500 loan each year. Nice, sure, but in practice not as awesome as the press releases imply. Unless you have the cold hard numbers in your hand of what family income levels get what aid (as Harvard's program does), I don't trust it.

So far, however, Scripps isn't even offering that. And given the word around campus, I doubt that they will be improving their financial aid offers for the next few years at least. What word? Apparently the administration is nervous about Scripps' endowment. My understanding is that back in the day, when Scripps was a finishing school verdant educational institution for young ladies, Scripps alumnae typically married old-money billionaire douchebags. These alums were able to use their husbands' bank accounts to give ridiculously large sums of cash back to the school.

Now, things are different. Scripps graduates are still frequently affluent, to be sure--we graduate tons of future doctors, lawyers, and business owners. But that's just it--Scripps alumnae are making their own money instead of marrying into it. As such, while they can certainly give back to their alma mater, they don't tend to be so ridiculously wealthy that they can offer the kind of mind-blowing one-time contributions that get buildings named after you.

Now there's no reason to fear that Scripps is gonna go bankrupt or something anytime soon. We don't have that much lawn to water! But given the relatively generous financial aid offers that are now in vogue--and being implemented at two of our 5C sister schools, CMC and Pomona--if Scripps doesn't have the capital to keep up, we may lose the bidding war that Harvard began. Scripps initially created the JES scholarship so they could buy high SAT scores and raise their average.* Competition from the new wave of financial aid might bring that average right back down again.

What an awful prospect for our dear alma mater! Clearly us Scripps Women, the class of 2008, need to take things old-school style and go out and wed some old-money billionaire douchebags! Just lie back and think of Claremont, ladies! Incipit vita nova!!**


* Can't find the memo where I originally drew this conclusion, but this Scripps Magazine article pretty much states the same:

Average SAT scores have jumped about 100 points in the past five years, a "huge" leap according to Goldsmith, who directly attributes the rise to the expansion of merit scholarship aid. "Also, we've gone from no National Merit Finalists to 20 in the same period," Goldsmith concludes, a record number among women's colleges this year.

** "Here Begins New Life," the Scripps school motto. Lisa was planning to print it on thongs and sell them at the Seal Court craft fair. I need to bug her about that.