Friday, March 16, 2007

Another blow to individualism

Things like this really annoy me, and not entirely for the reasons you might think.

Basically, Hamilton college (a fairly good small school in upstate NY--I actually know people who went there) has decided to end all merit-based aid and divert this money toward need-based aid. It's not surprising that I would object to this, but the reasons are a bit more complicated than they might appear.

Yes, I will admit, I did get merit-based aid as an undergraduate, to the tune of my entire tuition. And I've been on merit-based fellowships at graduate schools since then. I'm sure that's had some impact on my views on this matter. But there are other concerns which I think are more relevant--though it's possible I'm kidding myself:

1) I was raised with the belief that college is the expense of the person attending, not his or her family. (S)He is the one attending the school, gaining the advantages of the successes, dealing with the consequences of the failures, picking the courses to study and the school to attend, and responsible for the bill. Turning everything into need-based aid screws over the kids of well-off parents who don't approve of their child's decision to go to college at all, who don't like the choice of school, who don't like the choice of study program, etc. It ends up causing massive differences in the level of control over a student's life that the parents or guardians have, based solely on the economics of the family. The children of wealth only have wealth themselves if their parents choose to bestow it on them. On their own, there's very little difference in the economic power of most 18-year-olds.

2) This eliminates one of the great routes of self-reliance for college students. One of the things I love about a meritocracy is that it allows people through their own effort to alter the outcomes of their lives. Getting rid of merit-based aid, and funneling all that money into need-based aid means that students will be rewarded or punished for who their parents are, not what they themselves have accomplished.

3) I don't really like the idea of charging different prices for the same thing to different people based upon their financial situation. If I want the good pizza deal at the local pizzeria, it's $7.94 for 2 small 2-topping pizzas and a 2-liter of pop of my choice. It would be the same if I won the lottery last week, and it would be the same next week if I lost my job. There are some differential price points which make rational sense to me--frequent customer discounts to lure people into being habitual shoppers, senior and student discounts to target groups which often have limited personal budgets but nevertheless account for a large amount of the revenue of certain industries like movie theaters, lower costs for advanced purchases locking in usage rising as the event gets closer followed by a massive price reduction immediately before the event to fill the leftover seats and eke out what profit you can, and even different interest rates based upon risk of lending to a given individual--but I don't like this sort of one. It's economically valid, as it helps more accurately match supply to demand, but this ends up functioning as a tax levied by entities which are not elected to determine tax structures.

Now, I recognize that part of that last argument could be applied to merit scholarships as well--different students are paying different amounts to attend the same institution. Here, though, I argue that it's a bit different. For one, simply put, the merit scholarship students are contributing more to the university in arenas other than present dollars than the other students are. By raising the academic profile of the school, they are increasing its prestige, its ability to attract grants and donations, and to hire faculty members of its choice. More often than not--if the scholarships are distributed properly--they end up being the ones who excel in classes, and as a result either raise the level of discussion or end up effectively tutoring their friends who are struggling in those classes. And when those overachievers graduate, they're more likely to go on to careers in which their accomplishments reflect favorably on the school, and are likely to be alumni donors themselves.

I was lucky. My family decided to cover the educational costs of both my brother and me beyond what our scholarships provided, despite having told us for basically our entire lives that college was our cost. And they didn't try to control what we studied or where we did so. But they very easily could have chosen not to do this. And if that had happened, I probably would be in more debt than several of my former roommates, despite the fact that I had a full-tuition merit scholarship and none of them were on any merit aid. If you then remove the merit aid entirely, well, I certainly would not have gone to the college I did, and probably wouldn't have gone to as good of one in general. Two recent alumni from the same school shouldn't be facing debt differences of tens of thousands of dollars (or, in some cases, more than $100,000) when the difference in reason is how much money their parents make.

1 comment:

AdamX said...

How I wish I had just not went to college at all at this point in my life! (Damn college debt...)