Harvard, Stanford and Penn have in recent months announced financial aid initiatives aimed at making college more affordable for low-income families. According to the University financial aid office, however, these policies still lag behind those that Princeton awards.
The initiatives claim to make college free for families with incomes below certain thresholds — $45,000 at Stanford and $40,000 at Harvard — but do not necessarily mean tuition is completely loan free for families under the cutoff level, said Robin Moscato, associate director of financial aid.
"What they say is that for families with incomes under a certain level, they will not require a parental contribution, but on the other hand they may still have loans in the package," she said. "It doesn't mean that students don't still have jobs or student loans as well as a summer job expectation."
Low-income students who choose to attend Princeton already have parental contribution eliminated, she said. Under Princeton's comprehensive no-loan financial aid program, students are not required to take out loans as part of their aid packages.
"We've chosen not to tie any part of need-based aid to any specific income level. We look at each family individually and try to make the right decision," Moscato said.
The University began implementing its grant-based financial aid policy in 1998 and completed it in 2001. Since then, Princeton has been the only school in the country to eliminate loans from the aid packages of all students, not just low-income students, such as at Penn, which gives grants to families with incomes below $50,000.
Vice President and Secretary Bob Durkee '69 emphasized the importance of such a generous aid program in attracting students to Princeton and helping to reduce the financial hardship.
"There are important needs for students and families below these income levels but there are also significant needs for students and families at those levels and above those levels," Durkee said. "Our program really aids anyone who qualifies for financial aid and does provide that they will be in a position to graduate debt free because they won't have loans as part of their packages."
Though other schools' aid packages help those who fall below the cutoff, Durkee said, they may not help all students who need aid and may unfairly help students who can afford to pay. Families with low incomes but with significant assets may be able to take advantage of the cutoff while families whose incomes are above a certain amount may be disadvantaged.
Karen Cooper, Stanford's director of financial aid, said in an email that in order to avoid a "cliff effect" for families earning incomes just above the cutoff, these families would also see significantly reduced parent contribution expectations. She pointed out that they would evaluate each case individually and that they were not concerned about possible loopholes.
"We feel that it is worth the risk to have a very small percentage of students benefit from this program who may have had a higher parent contribution if assets were considered in order to have a clear and simple message for low income families," she wrote.
Increases in aid for low-income students also stipulate tuition increases for those who can afford to pay.
Stanford's projected annual tuition has risen to $47,000 and Penn's to $43,000. Many schools, including the University, have seen tuition increase five to six percent each year. The University remains one of the lowest among its peers, with tuition, room and board totaling $40,213 and $2500 more if the costs of an eating club are included.
Regarding the burden that seems to be put on students who are not receiving financial aid, Durkee believes that they are getting their money's worth.
"Why would you not ask students and families that can afford to pay for at least some of their education to do so?" Durkee said. "Remember, even a student at Princeton ... who is paying the full fee is only paying about half of what it actually costs to provide the education. Everybody is getting some form of financial aid and is really getting half of the costs covered by the endowment and other forms of support."
Durkee is satisfied with the coverage that has been given to new financial aid policies, as these articles have often mentioned the Princton.
"I'm pleased that a lot of the recent coverage refers to Princeton as having really begun this process and in a number cases still refers to Princeton as the real leader in this area," he said. "We think our program is the most generous and one of the most reasonable because there isn't any arbitrary cutoff."
Although Stanford claims that Princeton's policy in no way affected their new program, Durkee believes that the original goal of the University policy is coming to fruition.
"In the original announcement we made in 2001, we hoped that others would follow our lead and would improve their financial aid programs to make it more possible for students not only from very low-income families but from middle-income families to be able to afford college and universities like Princeton and its peers," Durkee said.
"Getting over the first hurdle means they need to know that there are very generous financial aid programs at many of these schools. And I think that message is increasingly clear," he added.
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