With money coming in more slowly than the financial aid given out, schools say they are nearing the breaking point, and even the most selective elite universities are rethinking their generosity.
"It just became clear that if we continue to give more and more aid, the numbers don't add up," says Raynard Kington, head of Grinnell College. Thanks to longtime former board member Warren Buffett, Grinnell has an endowment bigger than most schools dream of. For years, that's enabled Grinnell to admit students on a need-blind basis — and then give them as much aid as they need.
Today, Grinnell effectively writes off more than 60 percent of its tuition — that's more than any other school except Harvard University, Kington says. But it's also more than Grinnell can afford without compromising the quality of its education.
"We don't get in a room and say, 'OK, do we give more aid here or do we give a raise to a professor over here?' It's never that stark, but behind the curtain, what's happening is this tradeoff," says Kington.
Grinnell is one of many hoping to save money by turning some of its student grants into loans instead. People borrow for other things, he says.
"The average new-car loan is $28,000 a year. You may not want to get that high, but it's not unreasonable to expect students to carry a slightly higher amount of their aid in form of a loan," he says.
Cornell University just converted some of its grants into loans, but Vice Provost Barbara Knuth says Cornell is still committed to supporting needy kids.
"There are very, very few institutions who will be able to say, 'We could pay it all for you,' " says Knuth. "On the other hand, we have institutional fiduciary responsibilities and responsibilities to future Cornell students to have an approach that is truly financially sustainable."
Recently, MIT also switched some of its grants into loans, but Chancellor Eric Grimson says admissions will still be need-blind.
"That's one of our rock-solid principles. It's sort of built into our DNA," says Grimson.
In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a school that doesn't believe in need-blind admissions in principle. But Wesleyan President Michael Roth says just being need-blind alone becomes meaningless if students who are admitted are not offered enough aid so they can actually enroll without taking on a load of debt.
"I think at many schools, the label 'need-blind' actually can conceal a certain amount of hypocrisy," Roth says.
Rather than be a purist on need-blind, Roth's plan for Wesleyan is to admit students without regard for finances only until scholarship money runs out. Then, for the last approximately 10 percent of the class, Wesleyan would only admit those who can pay their own way, he says.
"I did not expect at Wesleyan to have to make this kind of decision, but I don't think in good conscience I can maintain a policy that, absent some miraculous change in the future, is just unsustainable," says Roth.
The proposal has caused some backlash on campus. Junior Leonid Liu, who is on full financial aid, says he came to Wesleyan because of its reputation as "Diversity University."
"It's kind of a slap in the face to students like me," Liu says.
Equally upset is classmate Benny Docter, who gets no financial aid.
"I would never want to get into school because of my parents' financial portfolios," Docter says.
The need-blind policy should stay, says student Rachel Warren. What Wesleyan should focus on instead is cutting costs, what she calls the extravagances on campus.
"We have people clean up for us and people that cook for us and you can go to lots of concerts for free, but I don't think any of them is more valuable than having students like Leo here," Warren says.
Grinnell's Kington says that's a naive way of looking at the problem. Cutting expenses can't solve the problem of an unsustainable trend, he says.
"So, OK, we cut landscaping this year. What do we cut next year? OK, let's stop cleaning the windows. OK, what do we do next year? Well, pretty soon you go from cutting fat to cutting meat and bone," Kington says.
And ultimately, Kington says, even the most aggressive cuts will not be enough to close the gap between money coming in and financial aid going out.