Yesterday my alma mater, Rice University, announced a major new financial aid initiative aimed at making the elite private school more affordable for low- and middle-income students. Under the terms of the plan, which will go into effect for the 2019-2020 school year, students from families with combined incomes of less than $65,000 will receive grants fully covering the cost of tuition (currently $46,600), fees ($750), room ($9,600), and board ($4,400). Students from families earning between $65,000 and $130,000 will receive full-tuition grants, while those from families making between $130,000 and $200,000 will receive at least a half-tuition grant.
That sounds incredibly generous—and it is. In reality, though, Rice is playing catch-up with the elite private schools it considers its peers. The likes of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and Duke all have well-established financial aid programs designed to make college affordable for lower and middle class families. While the details vary, all of these elite institutions give free rides to families making less than $65,000 a year and pay a substantial portion of tuition and expenses for families making up to $200,000.
At Harvard, for instance, families making between $65,000 and $150,000 are asked to contribute no more than 10 percent of their annual income toward the full cost of an Ivy League education. Families making up to $125,000 will pay no tuition to send their child to Stanford, while those making up to $140,000 get free tuition to Princeton. For most admitted students, getting an education at these schools can be cheaper than going to a state school; Harvard estimates that 90 percent of Americans would pay less to matriculate in Cambridge than to attend their local public university.
Rice still lags behind its peers in some respects. First, its new financial aid plan, called the Rice Investment, is limited to American students. Several of the U.S. News and World Report’s top-ranked universities, including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, commit to fully funding the demonstrated financial need of accepted undergraduates regardless of their home country. And while Rice continues to include loans in financial aid packages for families making $150,000 and above, seventeen wealthy universities and liberal arts schools have eliminated loans from their aid packages.
Moreover, it’s unclear whether Rice is substantially more affordable now than it was in decades past. From its opening in 1912 to 1965, the university charged no tuition at all, as stipulated in its charter. Even after revising its charter to allow it to collect tuition, the university remained far less expensive than other top private schools, regularly topping lists of America’s “best value” colleges.
As a second-generation Owl, my family experience reflects this history. My mother and her brother came from a single-parent, lower-middle-class San Antonio family but were able to afford a Rice education thanks to free tuition in the case of my uncle (class of 1966) and a scholarship in the case of my mother (class of 1972). My uncle helped offset the cost of housing and dining by scrubbing dishes in the kitchen of his residential college—evidently a common mode of student employment at the time.
By the time I matriculated in 2003, Rice undergraduate tuition cost roughly $20,000. (Full disclosure: I was fortunate to not require financial aid when I attended.) Rice still had the reputation of being a relatively affordable alternative to the Ivies, but that vaunted affordability took a major hit under current president David Leebron, under whom tuition more than doubled to the heart-stopping 2018-2019 figure of $46,600. Thanks to generous financial aid, most students don’t pay that sticker price. But the net cost of attending Rice is still substantially greater than that of its peers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator, the average out-of-pocket cost (total cost minus financial aid) of attending Rice in 2016-17 was $24,131, compared to $16,302 at Princeton, $16,562 at Stanford, and $17,030 at Harvard.
Private universities have been widely criticized for their high tuition. In 2016, Rice was one of the schools that received a letter from members of Congress questioning why tuition growth continued to outpace inflation despite massive endowments, such as Rice’s staggering $5.8 billion, which makes it one of the richest universities in the world. Universities generally responded by arguing that charging wealthy students high tuition subsidizes cheap tuition for poor and middle class students. They’ve used this argument to justify continuing to jack up tuition at the same time as they increase financial aid.
Of course, a cynic might argue that elite universities wouldn’t need to provide so much financial aid if they didn’t charge so much to begin with. And there’s a real danger that sticker shock is scaring worthy lower-income students from even applying to the likes of Rice. One recent study found that around 80 percent of high-achieving, low-income students don’t apply to a single selective institution. Many low-income students receive poor college counseling at their high schools because of strained budgets.
That was the beauty of Rice’s original no-tuition model, partly inspired by New York’s Cooper Union—whose decision to start charging tuition in 2013 proved so controversial that it recently announced it was reversing course. The typical Rice student in the early sixties, according to my uncle, was a student from rural or small-town Texas with modest means but a big IQ. Earning a coveted spot at Rice was sometimes their only opportunity for a college education. Every high school student in the state knew that if they were smart and worked hard they could get a free education. (Unless, of course, they were black—shamefully, Rice only started admitting African Americans in 1965, the same year it started charging tuition.)
As a Rice alumnus, I hope the school’s recently announced financial aid package returns the school to that egalitarian tradition. But I also wonder if my alma mater shouldn’t just ditch the Rube Goldberg–like financial aid system that increasingly defines American higher education and go back to the days of free tuition for all.
[A previous version of this story stated that students from families making up to $140,000 received a “full ride” from Princeton. Such students receive free tuition but must pay a portion of their room and board.]