Friday, December 28, 2007

"A New Paradigm"

In an article in tomorrow's New York Times about the ramifications of Harvard's decision to expand its financial aid for middle class students, New York State Senator Kenneth LaValle says that, "They [Harvard] created a new paradigm. People will pay attention to it."

LaValle is right. Harvard's move should, and already has, changed the conversation about financial aid at Dartmouth. As the article discusses, many colleges are concerned that Harvard's decision will force them, because of limited resources, to focus on middle class students at the expense of lower income students. After all, most colleges have far smaller endowments than Harvard does. Dartmouth's endowment per student is 42% as large as Harvard's, certainly a limitation on the flexibility and potential growth of our financial aid offerings.

But the real question at hand is our priorities. Compared with the construction of new buildings and increases in administration and faculty size, how much emphasis is Dartmouth placing on prioritizing financial aid? A key word that gets used around Parkhurst is "competitiveness" - that when considering financial decisions, the ultimate goal should be maintaining and improving our standing relative to our peers. It seems to me that this has been the impetus for the construction of the new dorms and academic buildings. And they are nice - I live in one of them. But if we don't keep Dartmouth affordable, none of that is going to matter. If prospective students simply cannot afford to attend, or if they have a better offer from one of our peers, the nicest buildings aren't going to get them to attend. I certainly think that financial aid is definitely a top priority for the college - we are definitely in a small group when it comes to our need-blind admission policy - but I wonder if it is as much of a priority as it can be, as it should be. Financial aid shouldn't be the top priority only because it is the right thing to do, or because it is what students, families, and alumni want, it is also where the battle for "competitiveness" has gone.

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