In the last few months, a number of the wealthiest colleges and universities in the country have been reconsidering the level of their financial aid. Paradoxically, their intent is not to increase their financial aid, but to reduce it. How do we reconcile societal concerns regarding the rising costs of higher education (and the corresponding rise in student debt) with the decision by wealthy colleges to spend less on student aid? What is going on?
Let’s turn the clock back about 30 years. In the early 1980s, there were, by today’s standards, only a handful of wealthy colleges and universities. Top-tier universities such as Duke and Brown had endowments of less than $150 million. Even at Harvard, endowment drawdown and annual giving contributed only a minor portion of the annual operating budget. And yet, as a fraction of median family income, the cost of college then was significantly more affordable than it is today.