Now that Harvard, Yale, and a handful of other top-ranked schools have made moves to make their undergraduate programs more affordable, will the rest of American colleges follow suit?
Not likely. Tuition is expected to keep rising faster than inflation, experts say. And recent moves by some schools to make more aid money available – Yale University announced the latest such plan Monday – merely illustrate the deep divide in American higher education. A few elite schools have huge endowments that allow them to spend more on financial aid programs, while most do not.
"Historically, the decisions of Ivy League schools have been influential in terms of financing college," says Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt. "Colleges – in the extent that they're able to – have followed in the footsteps of what these Ivy Leaguers are doing. [This time,] however, to the extent that they're able to is a big if."
On Monday, Yale announced significant financial-aid packages for students with a family income of $200,000 or less. For these upper-middle income families, the change means a 33 to 55 percent reduction in tuition, and families earning less than $60,000 a year will not be required to make any contribution to Yale. Last month, Harvard unveiled a similar plan.
Both institutions were able to implement these changes thanks in large part to their massive endowments. Harvard has the nation's largest endowment, at $34.9 billion; Yale is No. 2, at $22.5 billion). But with the wealthiest 10 percent of colleges and universities holding most of the endowment assets, according to the College Board, the Harvard and Yale models will be difficult to replicate broadly.
"The smoke and mirrors in this is that the public thinks that Harvard, Yale, and others are actually addressing the cost of higher education," says Robert Massa, vice president for enrollment at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. "All they're doing is lowering the price because they have the largess to do it, and most of us don't, which will cause a systemwide increase in price."
If Dickinson were to replace loans with outright grants, a prominent new aid policy at a number of Ivy League schools, it would cost $5 million, Mr. Massa calculates. The small liberal arts school is already withdrawing the maximum it prudently can each year from its endowment, he adds, so Dickinson would need to raise tuition by $2,000 to fund such a program.
Even at a big school like the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, with an endowment over $3 billion, the administration is hard pressed to issue more aid than it already does. "If we were to go further than we have, it would be very, very costly and would begin to erode other issues that we don't want to erode," says Jerry Lucido, vice provost for enrollment policy and management at USC.
The University of Chicago, which has over $6 billion in its endowment, only managed to reduce loans for a quarter of its students after an alumnus donated $100 million for that purpose. Trying to further lower the price of attendance could risk hurting the quality of education offered, says Michael Behnke, vice president and dean of college enrollment at the university.
"We particularly have a very expensive mode of education with our small, discussion-style classes," he says. "It's very hard to economize there without switching to a large lecture format, which a place like University of Chicago certainly doesn't want to do."
Critics have called for schools to use more of their endowments for tuition relief. At least 62 schools have endowments worth over $1 billion and Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa argues that these resources should be used to keep prices down.
"Parents and students have a right to expect these universities with big endowments to end the hoarding and start the helping with skyrocketing tuition costs," said Senator Grassley in a press release Monday. He's also urged Congress to consider creating certain payout requirements for universities with large endowments.
For years these endowments were conservatively invested and considered untouchable, says Lynne Munson, a research fellow at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. In recent years, however, many universities have modernized investment strategies and recruited top financial managers to control their endowments, drastically increasing their size. But "they still have a Depression-era, save-for-a-rainy-day [mentality]," says Ms. Munson. "At this point it would require a rainy day of Noah's proportion to spend this money."
Still, donor restrictions can make managing an endowment difficult. Some donors earmark funds for specific purposes, such as research. Even if a donation is designated for financial aid, it may be for very specific types of students in special programs, such as a Portuguese drama major.
"Not every endowment dollar is available for student financial aid and that may be something the institution has relatively small amounts of control over," says Matt Hamill, senior vice president at the National Association of College and University Business Officers.
Despite Harvard and Yale's aid initiatives, like virtually every other college and university in the US they, too, will raise the overall cost of tuition.
"We'd all like to see the tuition [cost] slow down, but a good college education is expensive," says USC's Mr. Lucido.