Ivy League Schools Open Doors to Low Income

In recent months, the nation's elite universities have been reducing — and in some cases, waiving — tuition for students from low-income families. For more, Farai Chideya talks with Jeff Selingo — editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education — and Yale graduate student Anthony Berryhill.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES. So you're heading to college. Your grades say Ivy League, but your income says community college. In the past, you might not have been able to raise the funds to attend your dream school. Now if you make the grade, you might not have to worry as much about your finances.

Elite schools like Harvard, Yale and Stanford are offering free tuition to students from lower-income families, but what impact will these initiatives have on access and diversity in higher education?

In a moment, we'll put that question to Jeff Selingo. He's the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education. But first, we've got Anthony Berryhill. When he was an undergrad at Stanford University, his financial aid package offered him grants and loans, but that money didn't stretch quite as far as he thought it would. Anthony, thanks for coming on.

Mr. ANTHONY BERRYHILL (Grad Student, Yale University): Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: So you are a grad student now at Yale. You have basically just been churning through the best schools in America. And, you know, but let's back it up a little bit. You are from New Orleans, from the Lower Ninth Ward, and you had great grades. You got into Stanford. Were you concerned, once you got accepted, that you wouldn't get a good financial aid package?

Mr. BERRYHILL: I was initially concerned, and then when I saw the financial aid package, it seemed like a very - not just seemed like. It was a very, very good offer. There were relatively few loans. I only had about $7,000 worth over four years. So it was a good deal. The acceptance and the financial aid package came very close to each other. So I wasn't that concerned about the finances, at least before I went to Stanford.

CHIDEYA: Now you say before you went to Stanford because even though you got a good package, there were still some tight times. What exactly did you have to deal with?

Mr. BERRYHILL: Absolutely. I think what I had to deal with were a lot of the hidden costs, the costs that although they are written into a financial aid package - for example there are allowances for books and travel, etc. A lot of the very basic things that most people would take for granted were covered. For example, to buy a plane ticket from New Orleans to California is not a cheap proposition, at least about 300, $350.

So if you're from a very lower income environment, that can be quite crushing. That's one. Another one was even day-to-day expenses, for example, paying for books, which books at a college book store can cost as much as $100 or even $130, and even more so for course packs.

And when I went to Stanford, we didn't have online used book sales services, so it took a lot of ingenuity in order to figure out how to make ends meet.

CHIDEYA: So do you think that colleges really need to factor in these -I wouldn't call them exactly hidden costs, but these secondary costs when they really think about what students have to go through?

Mr. BERRYHILL: I think what's been done recently is very - is a huge deal in terms of getting rid of loans and making tuition affordable. In terms of a lot of the secondary costs, I think so. At the very least, I think there should be some kind of dialogue from the financial aid office to talk about a lot of these factors, because when I was going to a financial aid office saying I have these huge costs, you know, these things that are expected out of me in order - if I want to even do research, a lot of the rhetoric I got back was just assuming that I would already have the resources or take enough jobs to pay for such things.

So I think a good second step post the tuition breaks would be at least having some infrastructure for dealing with those kinds of extra costs that aren't very obvious if you're filling out a FAFSA form or looking at a financial aid package.

CHIDEYA: All right, well I want you to stay with us, and I want to bring in Jeff Selingo. He's editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, and that publication has been looking at some of these financial aid programs from elite universities. How are you doing, Jeff?

Mr. JEFF SELINGO (Editor, Chronicle of Higher Education): I'm pretty good today.

CHIDEYA: So give us an update on how things have been unfolding with these elite universities really rolling out the red carpet to students not just from low-income families but from middle-income and even upper-middle-income families.

Mr. SELINGO: Well, basically, in December, Harvard announced that they were going to ask families with salaries between $120,000 and $180,000 a year to pay no more than 10 percent of their income. They were also going to eliminate loans for low-income students as well, something that they started doing a couple of years ago.

What has happened since then is that basically all of their competitors and other elite, wealthy institutions have followed along with similar financial aid programs. We see this every couple of years, where Harvard comes out with a new financial aid policy, and then all of its competitors and other institutions follow along.

So we now have about a dozen to two-dozen institutions out there really offering very good deals to middle-income parents.

CHIDEYA: Does this mean in a weird way that if you are able to get into a school like Harvard, like Columbia, that you might get a better deal from them than you would from other schools?

Mr. SELINGO: Oh, definitely. And especially, I think, the group that's feeling the heat right now are public universities because, essentially, what this does is put the price of these elite private colleges down to the price of a public university. When you talk about, you know, 10 percent of their income for middle-income families, that really puts the price of Harvard down to the price of UNC Chapel Hill or the University of Virginia or University of Michigan, all very good public colleges, but public colleges that are now really competing also on price with the Harvards of the world.

CHIDEYA: And Jeff, do you think this is going to shake up who goes where? I mean, is this going to mean that more lower-income students end up at Harvard, or is it just going to provide a better situation for people who would've gone there anyway?

Mr. SELINGO: I think it's going to be much more of the latter. I think that basically, students who would've gone to Harvard and had to pay a lot of money to go there are now going to basically still be able to go there, and they're just going to have to pay a lot less. And, in fact, we might even see more competition to try to get into Harvard now because the price is going to be so much lower than it used to be.

CHIDEYA: Anthony, when you think about K through 12 education, it's one - you know, in order to get into one of these top-tier schools, you have to be very on-your-game academically, but also part of whether or not you succeed in being qualified has to do with how good your local school systems are. Does this put pressure on local school systems or the whole question of educational access, does it all just end up trickling back down to the K through 12? And how does that impact black students, students of color, students from lower-income families?

Mr. BERRYHILL: I'm not sure how much the tuition breaks would impose burdens on the local schools. I mean, for example, pre-Katrina New Orleans, I mean, we - there were lots of issues in terms of the quality of public school system, etc. And what I do think, though, is that if the goal of the tuition breaks is to get more lower-income black students or even lower-income students period, a lot of the interventions that would have to happen would have to go beyond a financial aid policy.

For example, I mean, I went to a Jesuit outreach program. I was able to go to a very good private school in New Orleans, but a lot of people in my neighborhood who didn't go to such a school, they didn't have college counselors, or they didn't have even the familial networks to tell them here's what you need to study for the SAT, or even here's when you should apply for a FAFSA and here's how you can do so.

So I think the pressure would come more in terms of helping people who are lower income make up the gap in terms of understanding how to apply for college, what does it really entail and filling in some of those networks for them, which I - at this point, I really don't see happening yet.

CHIDEYA: Jeff, finally, when you look at the initiatives that are going on on the higher-education level, are there any initiatives that are as bold on issues of diversity as they are on these financial aid issues?

Mr. SELINGO: No, not really. I mean, what colleges - you know, colleges talk a lot about diversity, and many colleges are doing very well on that front. But most of these policies are aimed squarely at the middle class. And mainly, that's in reaction to pressures from Congress on college costs.

And, again, when Congress talks about college costs, they're really talking about the college costs for middle-class families because that makes up their constituents. Those are the constituents they hear from most often.

So most of the initiatives are really aimed squarely at the middle class and not necessarily at increasing diversity.

CHIDEYA: Well Jeff, Anthony, thank you.

Mr. SELINGO: Thank you.

Mr. BERRYHILL: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Jeffrey Selingo is editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Anthony Berryhill is a graduate student at Yale University.

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