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While families struggle to keep up with the growing cost of higher education, colleges and universities are struggling, too. A growing number say they can no longer afford to ignore students' ability to pay their own way when deciding whether to admit them.
NPR's Tovia Smith has the story.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: The trend lines couldn't be more clear. With endowments and donations down and student need up, it doesn't take an honors math student to see something's got to give.
RAYNARD KINGTON: And just to conclude, as we continue to give more and more aid, the numbers don't add up.
SMITH: That's Raynard Kington, president of Grinnell College, which has an endowment bigger than most schools dream of, thanks in large part to the guidance of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. For years, that's enabled Grinnell to admit students on a need-blind basis and then give them as much aid as they need. Today, Grinnell effectively writes off more than 60 percent of its tuition. That's more than any other school except Harvard, Kington says, but also more than Grinnell can afford without compromising the quality of its education.
KINGTON: We don't get in room and say, OK, do we give more aid here or do we give a raise to our professors over here? It's never that stark but behind curtain that's what's happening, is this tradeoff.
SMITH: Grinnell is one of many hoping to save money by turning some of its student grants into loans instead. People borrow for other things, he says.
KINGTON: The average new car loan is $28,000 a year. You may not want to go that high but its not unreasonable to expect students to carry a slightly higher amount of their aid in the form of a loan.
SMITH: Provost Barbara Knuth says Cornell just converted some of its grants into loans. She says the university is committed to supporting needy kids.
BARBARA KNUTH: On the other hand, we have institutional fiduciary responsibilities and responsibilities to future Cornell students to have an approach that is truly financially sustainable.
SMITH: Recently, MIT also switched some of its grants into loans, but Chancellor Eric Grimson says admissions will still be need-blind.
ERIC GRIMSON: That's one of the just rock-solid principles. It's sort of built into our DNA.
SMITH: In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a school that doesn't believe in need-blind admissions, in principle. But Wesleyan president Michael Roth, says just being need blind alone becomes meaningless if students who are admitted are not offered enough aid so they can actually enroll without taking on a load of debt.
MICHAEL ROTH: And I think at many schools, the label need-blind actually can conceal a certain amount of hypocrisy.
SMITH: Rather than be a purist on need-blind, Roth's plan for Wesleyan is to admit students without regard for finances, only until scholarship money runs out. Then, for the last five or 15 percent of the class, he says, Wesleyan would only admit those who can pay their way.
ROTH: I don't think in good conscience, I can maintain policy that, absent some miraculous change in the future, is just unsustainable.
SMITH: The proposal has caused backlash on campus. Junior Leonid Lu, who is on full financial aid, says he came to Wesleyan because of its reputation as diversity university.
LEONID LU: I mean, it's kind of like a slap in the face for students like me.
SMITH: But equally upset is classmate Benny Docter, who gets no financial aid
BENNY DOCTER: I would never want to get into school because of my parents' financial portfolios.
SMITH: The need-blind policy should stay, agrees student Rachel Warren; what Wesleyan should focus on instead, is cutting costs and what she calls the extravagances on campus.
RACHEL WARREN: You know, have people that clean up after us and people that cook for us, and you can go to lots of concerts for free. But I don't think any of them is more valuable than having students like Leo here.
KINGTON: Well, I think that's a pretty naive way of looking at problem.
SMITH: Grinnell President Kington says cutting expenses can't solve the problem of an unsustainable trend.
KINGTON: So, OK, we cut landscaping this year. What do we cut next year? OK, let's stop cleaning the windows. OK, what do we do next year? Well, pretty soon you go from cutting fat to cutting meat and bone.
SMITH: And ultimately, Kington says, even the most aggressive cuts will not be enough to close the gap between money coming in and financial aid going out.
Tovia Smith, NPR News.