It’s an accepted reality that whenever budgets are cut, difficult decisions must be made. These decisions always upset some people take the recent staff layoffs or tuition increase as examples but most still see the necessity of making them. The one area that seems to be untouchable, however, is financial aid. From Dartmouth’s elimination of its no loans aid policy to the end of need-blind admissions for international students at Williams College, changes to financial aid never occur without vociferous opposition. Indeed, the mere idea of cutting student aid seems almost un-American. What happened to the sacredness of opportunity, the respect for achievement? What happened to the belief that anybody should be able, through hard academic work, to pull themselves out of poverty, graduate from Dartmouth and become a junior analyst for Goldman Sachs, just like the Founding Fathers intended?
Even critics like Roger Lott ’14 think that financial aid is at least a “noble” cause (“Education on Credit,” April 18). However, Lott and others who criticize financial aid programs do so on the basis of incorrect perceptions of aid’s goals namely, promoting wealth redistribution, ensuring an imagined right of students to attend the best (and most expensive) school possible and attracting the world’s underprivileged super geniuses to Dartmouth.
If these assumptions really were the underlying reasons for financial aid then Lott would have a point. At a time when tuition is rising at twice the rate of inflation, one could argue that charity or an assumed right to an Ivy League education is not the best use of ever-scarcer dollars. But critics are mistaken if they think these reasons are the only meaningful justifications for supporting financial aid. I would be the first to admit that aid recipients are not all Will Hunting. Some of us are just suburban kids from Connecticut with merely above average mathematical abilities, rather than rare intellects who will use our educations to invent a cure for cancer. I also doubt that Dartmouth is trying to engage in a grand wealth redistribution scheme as Lott suggests with a Board of Trustees that has more MBAs than General Electric’s Board of Directors, Dartmouth is not on course to become a socialist utopia any time soon.
Instead, Dartmouth should maintain its financial aid commitments for two different but related reasons: its institutional priorities and its role in the social contract. A generous financial aid program helps boost the College’s number of applicants, socioeconomic diversity and graduation rates all statistics that factor into our reputation as an institution. In this way, Lott’s feelings of guilt are unjustified. In return for Dartmouth’s generosity, Lott is providing diversity and bringing an underrepresented perspective to campus dialogue. In the future, he may have the opportunity to be a generous donor to the College.
But just as importantly, Dartmouth has a unique role in our nation’s social contract as a nonprofit organization. This unwritten contract is an old concept, and it implies that all of us, but especially well-off people and organizations, have a public duty to contribute to the greater good. By educating a diverse student body for future leadership in the country, Dartmouth is fulfilling its social role. Critics might call this unnecessary charity, but I would contend that it is a vital function of universities to help provide for social mobility and ensure that the nation’s leaders come from all walks of life. If universities ignored their unique societal role by reducing financial aid, a crucial avenue for upward mobility and opportunity would close for thousands of young Americans.
Where I agree with Lott is his call for a sense of appreciation and ownership over our educations. None of us, really, “deserve” to be at Dartmouth. All students, including the 48 percent who receive financial aid, should be grateful that Dartmouth’s institutional priorities match up with our own interests, and that Dartmouth takes its social obligations seriously and does not waver in its aid commitment, even in difficult economic times. If we could all try to be as steadfast in our duties to the public good as Dartmouth is, then financial aid will have achieved a fine victory.