Monday, April 21, 2008

Higher Education's Shell Game

Kenyon College sent me my first brochure during my sophomore year in high school. I can still remember the purple coated card stock, the view of the campus and the lure of a theatre major. Somewhere in my papers I still have the iconic 1997 viewbook, the one that made me want to go to Kenyon more than anything. Unable to visit the campus in Gambier, Ohio due to financial constraints, I eagerly lapped up information from the website and brochures they sent me, and devoured the admissions video from my college counseling office.

When the time came, I applied early decision. I knew I wanted to be there. And I was beyond euphoric when I was accepted. I still have a handwritten note from the admissions director who wrote to say that she loved my essay (a philosophical reflection on my personal growth as I saw it from atop Mt. Washington on a hiking trip) and she couldn't wait to meet me in person. On the poster in the senior lounge at school, I proudly wrote "Kenyon College" next to my name on the "where you're going to college list." I was the second filled in name, after a fellow senior bound to GW.

And then came the bad news. There wouldn't be enough financial aid to send me to Kenyon. The package they offered was not enough. The anguish of this lack of funding depressed me; I could barely pick up my head enough to look at other colleges to apply to. My college counselor selected a few she thought I would like: Trinity, Vassar, Skidmore, Bates. With a little persuasion, Kenyon allowed me to re-apply, regular decision, in the hopes of winning more financial aid.

In the end, while I was accepted to all the colleges, Kenyon still didn't have enough funding for me. It was a painful decision, but in the end I went with Trinity, and from this vantage point in the future, I don't regret it. But every time I read about college financial aid, I become inordinately frustrated with the whole affair. I know the pressure of the college application process; I know the disappointment of not going to one's first choice school.

I find it most ridiculous the games that colleges are playing now with the waived-tuition rules. Harvard, Yale, UVA, and many other top tier schools are now giving full-ride scholarships to people who fall in certain income brackets. And schools like those can afford it. But the stupid part of all of this becomes the fact that the tuition rates go ever higher, stranding many who won't get into Harvard, but still can't afford even state schools at this point.

What should happen here is that the schools should lower the tuition rates and actually charge them. Any college's tuition is up for negotiation if you know enough about the system. Trinity gave me a hefty discount in addition to my loans and work-study grant. And yet, I'm still paying off that degree. If Trinity charged a real rate for everyone, it wouldn't have to artificially inflate its tuition for the public view.

One reason that I work in development is for scholarships. I wouldn't have gotten through my private high school and undergrad years without scholarships, and I very much want to provide educational opportunities for those who, like me, can't afford it otherwise. I want students to go to their first choice college, regardless of how many loans they are offered. But more than that, I want the farce of higher ed financial aid to end. I want colleges to charge a flat rate.

Of course this is a simplified solution. But I think in the face of collapsing student loan programs, it's becoming more than necessary to give the whole system an overhaul.

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