Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Lower Tuitions at Stanford


Stanford's in the news today for: Stanford just made tuition free for families earning less than $125,000 per year. The news is usually accompanied by pictures of smiling students and balloons:

A smiling student and some balloons.

For example.

...and it usually takes the article in question a few paragraphs to get around to noting that:

The announcement is an expansion of Stanford's old financial aid policy, which previously applied to students from families making less than $100,000 per year. (...)

...which raises the question: Just how many students at Stanford come from families with incomes greater than $100k and less than $125k? ...and just how desperately did those families need to have their tuition costs reduced from \(\leq\)$13.5k[1] to $5k[2]?

(EDIT | A bird in my ear mentions that $100k/yr puts you in the 80%tile of American families, which seems at least approximately-correct.)


About a year ago, Ken Griffin donated $125 million in support of Harvard's financial aid program, funding 539 full scholarships to Harvard. Kim Soffen, writing in the Harvard Political Review, wrote:

An important first note is that the recipients of this new pool of money will not be the poorest students at Harvard; even before this donation, Harvard already guaranteed full scholarships to any family making under $65,000 per year, and that families making up to $150,000 would not have to pay more than ten percent of their income. Consequently, these additional scholarships would be going towards students from families who are already safely in the middle class.


Taking a few hundred students who would get a college education anyway and giving them a prestigious college education is quite a small gain given the immense size of the donation. How else could this money be better spent? If educating the poor was the goal, the donation could have been given to a less-endowed university. Take the local public school, the University of Massachusetts, Boston. This same $125 million could have funded 4375 four-year educations at UMass, eight times the money’s potential impact at Harvard...

To take the same argument a step further, if the same money was donated to Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, it would have funded 14,775 college educations, whose students could likely not afford any kind of higher education. (emphasis mine)

A correction attached to Kim's article notes that Griffin's donation will support existing guarantees of aid for students from families making \(\leq\)$65k/yr, but really, that just means that the University will divert the existing support elsewhere, and it washes to the same thing. Her point that there are were no poor students made more able to attend Harvard because of Griffin's gift was made. Maybe this isn't convincing to you if you don't buy the consequentialist argument-stack, but this is not a post on metaethics.


But, like, I do think that lower tuitions are almost never a bad thing, and I think that bashing Stanford too hard for doing some small measure of good is neither actually-good nor fun. It is true that [$5k tuition for \(\leq\)$125k families] is better than [full tuition for everyone] or even [$13k tuition for everyone].

And [$5k tuition for \(\leq\)$100k families] is exciting news. The first donor to Harvard's financial aid program was doing a great deal of good! (Ken Griffin...well...)

I'm reminded of an anecdote from Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat:

[O]ne day a rookie U.S. consular official had student after student come before him [with visa applications] with the same line that some chat room had suggested would work for getting a visa: "I want to go to America to become a famous professor."

After hearing this all day, the U.S. official was suddenly surprised to get one student who came before him and pronounced, "My mother has an artificial limb and I want to go to America to learn how to build a better artificial limb for her." The official was so relieved to hear a new line that he told the young man, "You know, this is the best story I've heard all day. I really salute you. I'm going to give you a visa."

You guessed it. You guessed it.

The next day, a bunch of students showed up at the embassy saying they wanted a visa to go to America to learn how to build better artificial limbs for their mothers.

One Gordon McKay donates a fortune to "take some poor little waif and educate them", and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is founded. A hundred years later, one Ken Griffin donates a hundred million dollars, and middle-class students pay less in tuition. These things are not the same.


Okay, to avoid getting too caught up in cynicism, here's the news I would have preferred to see today:

Stanford Halves "Student Contribution" for Financial Aid Recipients

Yale made a little bit of noise last year in protest of the a-few-thousand-dollars student contribution that gave otherwise full-aid students the choice between working ~12 hours a week or picking up some tens of thousands of dollars of loans. Students wanted to see full-aid mean full-aid, and y'know, if the FinAid office had the funds to spare, I think they've got a point.

Ceteris paribus, I'd prefer to be at an institution where class differences didn't mandate whether you had to pick up a job in addition to your studies. And if Stanford had a chance to take a step toward that sort of learning environment, and chose instead to send the funds to middle-class households...eh, they probably could have made a better choice.