Why so much financial aid for the wealthy?

It would be an easily made mistake to dismiss the Commission on the Future of Higher Education’s September 19th report as irrelevant to the U of C. For the most part, the high standards of the U of C and other schools in our peer group are not representative of the “equal parts meritocracy and mediocrity.”

Unfortunately, the commission paid particular attention to one area in which the University of Chicago does receive its share of complaints: financial aid.

The cost of attendance for non-commuter students during this academic year will be a minimum of $45,000, and first-years living on campus will pay more than $48,000. Even for a top-tier school, Chicago is pricey. At the same time, while our earnings from the Total Return Investment Pool may be the envy of most universities, they are famously meager compared to the schools that we compete with to fill out our freshman classes. Our ability to offer aid is comparatively limited.

With more than $4 billion endowment, the so-called Spellings Commission’s concerns about spiraling costs making it flat-out impossible for students to successfully earn a degree are less of a worry here. What is troubling is the extent to which U of C students are prevented from receiving the full value of their education by the effort necessary to pay for it.

The sheer number of hours required by the demands of both a full course load and a job is truly intimidating. Especially in the peak periods of midterms and finals week, time spent on the job can force undergrads to stay up even later in the night than is already required, affecting the quality of their class work. Employment can also limit the ability of students to take advantage of the many opportunities that this campus advertises, be they extensive involvement in extracurricular activities or simply going downtown on Friday and Saturday nights.

Furthermore, the specter of debt hanging over the stage at commencement has obvious and pervasive costs for the quality of life of our students. Its consequences are myriad, touching on everything from the ability to accept a low-paying internship in a field relevant to future career goals to the very nature of those goals themselves.

While there is nothing automatically detrimental about working your way through college, there is a point where it’s adding gratuitous stress to an already stressful environment. The University of Chicago is meant to stimulate intellectual and personal growth. It’s not impossible to attain that ideal while still fulfilling your financial responsibilities, but it is harder than it has to beyand creates a sharp division between those who are more and less responsible for funding their own college educations.

Realistically, some of these issues are insoluble facts of life, and some are in fact a vital part of U of C students’ education on how to survive in the world beyond 55th Street. But they also compose a vital part of the process of the poor getting poorer, at the expense of a richer and more diverse college experience for us all. Anything that can be done to alleviate these burdens would be extremely beneficial to the entire University.

Given that the recommendations of the report are not geared toward universities with our particular challenges, some creative thinking at the institutional level will be required to address them. The Department of Education seems likely to shorten and simplify the FAFSA form as advised by the report, and making the application process easier is, without a doubt, an important place to start.

But it’s just not enough.

Columbia University, which has similar financial constraints as the U of C, unlike the bloated endowments Harvard and Princeton boast, recently announced that it will replace student loans with grants for students from families making less than $50,000 per year. While there may well be a reason not to follow Columbia’s lead, we should be clear about why. According to the Office of College Aid, more than $3.3 million was awarded to freshmen in the class of 2009 who come from families making more than $99,000 annually. It’s worth examining whether the added marginal benefit of each dollar would be increased by redistributing some or even all of that funding to those earning less.

More study is required to say definitively that any of these ideas will make it easier for students from lower-income families to attend the U of C or that they are what will best suit our situation. But the controversy over the Spellings Commission’s conclusion will almost certainly put higher education reform on the agenda when the 110th Congress is gaveled into session this January. With our long tradition of innovation in education, the time is ripe for the U of C to search for some solutions of its own. We need to begin working toward a first step.