Fighting for financial aid

(U-WIRE) CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – David walked out to fight in a loincloth with a sling. Goliath stepped out in a 10-foot shimmer of bronze with a 20-foot spear. A group of men ran onto the plain and hog-tied David to make things fair.

Some stories shouldn’t be changed, some opponents don’t need added advantage, and some fights just aren’t fair. But try telling that to the consortium of colleges presently working to deprive prospective students of their right to bargain financial aid – their one sling strong enough to knock the towering cost of higher education to its knees.

Since 1991, when a Justice Department decision forbade universities from colluding on financial aid awards, a free market for financial aid has existed. Universities have doled out aid as they see fit, luring the most sought-after students with the most sought-after packages. Schools apply an individual calculus of need and ability to each student to ensure that the most capable have the means to develop those capabilities at their institution.

But recent concerns about the woes of less-than-exceptional students have led many schools to petition the Justice Department for a reversal of the decision.

Attorney Thane Scott, who argued the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s appeal of the 1991 decision, complained in a Boston Globe article that the very talented poor will always have a place to go, but the middle is facing increasing problems. Apparently, it’s unacceptable that the very talented poor are transcending the mediocre middle-class. What? Aren’t we running some kind of meritocracy here? We are, and we ought to continue. The purpose of financial aid is to allow qualified students the chance to develop through means which they would otherwise be denied because of their financial straits. The purpose is to give the best chances to the best students. The purpose is to foster an educational system where ability subordinates need and the down-and-out Davids can fight on equal footing against the overpriced and oversized higher education Goliaths.

Setting a formula to determine financial aid, as the present opposition proposes, denies the individuality of ability and need. Inevitably, the human elements of need and the grays of ability will be discarded in a black, white and blind equation. How many hungry brothers and sisters are equivalent in need to one overburdened single parent? How many cross-country stars are worth a concert cellist? Rather than looking at a student – at his abilities, his potential, and his circumstances – colleges would be forced to drop the relevant facts into the right holes and resign themselves to whatever decision the financial aid standards dictate. If some mishap or oversimplification of need and ability ties David’s hands before he can offer the first blow, we can only shake our heads, sigh and remind him that we are only trying to be fair.

-Matthew F. Quirk
Harvard Crimson (Harvard U.)

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