The Washington Post

Princeton to pay college bill for families making up to $100,000


For six years, Princeton University has boasted that the average family making less than $65,000 a year pays nothing for an undergradu­ate student’s tuition, room and board. Financial aid grants cover the entire bill.

Now the Ivy League school, one of the world’s wealthiest and most exclusive universiti­es, is extending that pledge to include most families earning up to $100,000. The new full-ride benchmark, announced Thursday, will take effect in fall 2023. More than a quarter of Princeton undergradu­ates are expected to qualify. The aid expansion will also benefit families over the threshold, including even many affluent ones with incomes of as much as $300,000.

For students who receive no financial aid, the estimated cost of attendance at Princeton this year is $79,540. That counts tuition, meals, housing and miscellane­ous expenses. So the value of a full ride, over four years, is well over $300,000.

Such are the benefits — for the select few who can get in — of attending a university with an endowment valued last year at more than $37 billion. Huge recent investment returns on that money are supporting the new aid.

Princeton’s president, Christophe­r L. Eisgruber, said the initiative is meant to ensure that students “flourish on our campus,” taking full advantage of academic, research and internship opportunit­ies. He said the university will also scrap a policy that students who receive financial aid are expected to contribute $3,500 a year for books and miscellane­ous expenses. That is likely to reduce pressure to find wellpaid summer jobs or part-time work during the school year.

Princeton’s announceme­nt is likely to reverberat­e among ultraselec­tive schools and the students who compete for admission to them. Harvard, Yale and Stanford universiti­es all promote on their websites that families with incomes of up to $75,000 and typical assets will qualify for grants that cover full costs. Yale, for example, calls its program a “zero parent share award.”

In 2001, Princeton eliminated loans from the financial aid packages it offers students. Some other prestigiou­s schools followed that “no-loan” example.

But one financial aid expert said the impact on higher education of Princeton’s latest announceme­nt will be quite limited at a time of rising concern about college costs and intense political debate over student debt cancellati­on.

“Does it change the world? No,” said Sandy Baum, an economist at the Urban Institute who for many years analyzed financial aid and pricing trends for the College Board. “Will it make life better for the small number of people who are fortunate enough to get into Princeton? Sure. … I’m not really worried about these Princeton students. I’m worried about all the people who don’t go to Princeton.”

With new residence halls, Princeton is growing its undergradu­ate enrollment from a prepandemi­c level of about 5,200 to about 5,700 by fall 2025. But demand for seats far exceeds supply. Every year the university draws tens of thousands of applicants. Its acceptance rate was 4 percent for the class that entered in fall 2021.

For many years, the university has sought to shed its image as a haven for the elite. About 21 percent of freshmen this fall have enough financial need to qualify for Pell Grants, the university said, up from 10 percent in 2009. Pell Grants target aid to families with low-to-moderate incomes. Princeton’s Pell share is relatively high for its peer group, but it trails the shares found at many public universiti­es.

Eisgruber said he would like to diversify the student body further.

“We have to think about middle-income students as well,” he said. Many who barely miss qualifying for Pell Grants are “underrepre­sented at colleges and universiti­es like this one,” Eisgruber said.

To illustrate its new policy, Princeton showed in a chart how projected aid awards would cut the cost of attendance for families living in the United States with no more than one child in college and less than $150,000 in assets (not counting retirement funds or a primary residence they might own).

Under those circumstan­ces, a family earning $150,000 would be expected to pay $12,500 a year. The contributi­on would be $25,000 a year at an income level of $200,000, $37,500 at an income level of $250,000, and $50,000 at an income level of $300,000.

All of those sums are substantia­lly lower than the current cost of attendance — nearly $80,000 — for families that receive no financial aid.

The chart did not specify how the scenarios would work for internatio­nal students. But Princeton officials say the university meets full financial need regardless of citizenshi­p.

Princeton’s formula spotlights an open secret of higher education: The definition of financial need can vary hugely from school to school. Families making in the range of $300,000 a year would qualify for little or no need-based aid at many other colleges or universiti­es. But Eisgruber argued that such cases deserve attention, too, especially when families have multiple children.

“We’re talking about families that face difficult trade-offs,” he said, “where paying for a college education is something that can require a lot of budgetary sacrifice.”

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