As the issue of funding for higher education becomes an increasingly debated, increasingly publicized, and an increasingly complex issue circulating through the American public as well as its political system, a wide array of questions begin to surface on a wide array of issues, some immediately faced in the present while others tempting theory as the future becomes progressively murky. One of such theories poses the question pondering what would happen if federal/state funding acquired a concrete cap, and how elitist schools (or the “Harvards of the world,” if you will) would handle such a financial impact on their institutions and the students that comprise it. In particular, many wonder if such establishments would move to attempt to soften the increased financial burden on students by contributing their own funds to “cover the difference,” or if they would transfer the marginal increase in financial contribution directly to students to further contribute to the elitist nature and reputation of their various programs.
When contemplating the notion of how such institutions would respond to funding shifts and how they would allow these shifts to affect their students, one must first be in full awareness of what the true mission of such institutions really are. According to the official Harvard website, the mission of Harvard College is “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society…through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.” (https://college.harvard.edu/about/history) If institutions such as Harvard are truly striving to produce the future leaders of society, and truly believe that a liberal arts and sciences education has the power to transform a student’s life, then exclusion by means of financial capability should theoretically not be intentionally allowed to exist as a roadblock to such students’ potential Harvard experience. The very nature of the term transformative implies that some sort of transition has occurred, a change from one state of being to one completely different. This sort of transitionary aspect could take place within a variety of realms, such as pertaining to knowledge, character, professionalism, capability for global impact, or even financially. When an institution makes the decision to eliminate a potential pathway for transformation by narrowing the financial scope and background of the students enrolled, i.e. limiting the population to those only already possessing the financial means to afford such an education, they in turn eliminate an aspect of the diversity of their identity itself, and by extension somewhat deny the power of higher education to be a transformative tool in the lives of students from all different backgrounds and sets of resources.
All this to be said, one might idealistically hope that such institutions of higher educations, if so equipped, would move to absorb such new financial constraints in hopes of instead liberating their students, as opposed to constraining students in an attempt to liberate their budget/selectivity preferences. However, in the modern era, the character of higher educational systems has been heavily impacted by the fusion of the identity of a given university as a place of knowledge with a coexistence as a place of business. According to Stephen Pelletier’s article entitled “Rethinking Revenue, “ “the erosion of traditional support from public coffers has opened the door for public universities to broaden their thinking and become more resourceful—and aggressive—about securing revenue.” (http://www.aascu.org/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=5569) At the end of the day, universities cannot educate if they cannot financially keep their doors open, a fact that has been emphasized to the extent that the bottom line of the university as a whole has become significantly more important than any potential bottom line of an individual student.
Another aspect of discretionary distribution of financial aid is evident in the posed question of whether or not financial aid allotments should be dependent on or influenced by an undergraduate student’s choice of major. This is quite frankly a bit of a trickier theory to ponder, particularly when trying to keep in mind how such a movement might ethically be perceived by the population as a whole, as it would require those in charge of allocating funds to decide which academic concentrations hold more value in society as a whole/should be compensated as such. Based on the argument presented in the above theory, one might conclude that no, by no means should student aid be differentiated purely based on major. One might claim that many other factors are more important indicators of merited aid, such as academic record, involvement, or even raw financial need. One might even say that if one really believes that the bare essence of education itself is so transformative, regardless of specific area, there is no reason to believe that some majors are more “important” than others, so long as transformative education is being achieved and transformative impact is being produced. While all this may be true, the “devil’s advocate” of blunt logistics may have a few points of his own to make. In terms of careers present in today’s society, there are some that can be designated as those that concretely serve to better society, and more of it, in more significantly observable ways than others. Particularly in occupations that require an academic and financial commitment to a certificate mandating schooling far beyond a four-year bachelor program, such as medical or law school, it is undeniable that a higher amount of raw expenses will be incurred by the student for the purpose of pursuing their education and late career. From this standpoint (and admittedly a bit of a biased one as a student currently aspiring to pursue a medically related certification requiring such prolonged educational commitment), some might throw out that to prevent discouraging such students from abandoning such society-impacting occupations for fear of greater debt, a greater financial aid commitment should be awarded. However, in the political realm, one must counter yet again with the question of whether or not such subjective and personally differentiating allocation of funds would have a chance at being smoothly received by educational institutions as well as the public at large.
In essence, the blade that is higher education serves as a profoundly double edged sword. One face represents the historic and idealistic principles on which such institutions were initially intended, echoing themes of the value of pure knowledge and the need for the universally transformative power that lies in an education. However, the other face slices the political and economic scene with the cold hard facts that reflect the current state and evolved nature of such systems, gradually leaving less and less room for true and unadulterated educational idealism. The American dream has been described as embodying “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each…” (http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/lessons/american-dream/students/thedream.html)
But will becoming richer and fuller grow to become a chance only able to be afforded by the already rich and full? Only time (and a battle of the blades) will tell.