The difference between an idea implemented and one left untried is often money. Take the trend toward "loan-free" financial aid packages at private colleges that began prior to the financial crisis and economic downturn.
Pomona College, in Claremont, California, offered grants instead of loans to families that typically earned less than about $45,000 annually. In December 2007, with its endowment at $1.8 billion as of the previous June, and up from $1.3 billion at the end of fiscal year 2005, the school expanded the program to include all students who qualified for financial aid.
Investments from the endowment have fallen about 21 percent to an estimated $1.3 billion as of June 30, according to controller Andrew O'Boyle. The school has frozen salaries and reduced the number of replacements for teachers on sabbatical, according to Karen Sisson, the school's treasurer and vice president. The expanded no-loan program will cost an additional $2.4 million annually, said Bruce Poch, the school's vice president and dean of admissions. In the year before the expansion, about 10 percent of students qualified for loan-free financial packages; now, all students who qualify for financial aid, or 54 percent of the school's 1,530 students, receive loan- free awards, Poch said."If we were making the decision in December '08 rather than December '07, would we do it? I think we probably wouldn't have," Poch said in an interview. "We were looking at a different world. If we knew then what we know now, we may not have gone this route."
As it happens, I am an alumni of Pomona College. I graduated in 2002, and eight years later, I am still making loan payments each month (they're interest free, thankfully, unlike my loans from graduate school). I learned about my alma mater's efforts when, having somehow acquired my cell phone number through methods I can only guess at, a friendly student called in an attempt to solicit funds on behalf of the alumni giving office. Asking folks still in the repayment phase of post-graduate life for help on this particular initiative didn't seem like an especially good idea to me.
Anyhow, a more recent article suggests that if the endowments of colleges don't turn around soon, a lot of colleges -- though perhaps not Princeton, which was first to do this, or Pomona, with its large endowment -- are going to end loan free aid packages for cost reasons (Dartmouth and Williams have already done so).
Here is the financial context:
Such a no-loan or limited-loan pledge came from these schools ever-growing endowments. From 2004-2008, the four-year rate of return on investments was 15.3%, 9.3%, 10.8%, and 17.2% respectively. With such investment successes and additional funds flowing in from alumni donors, it is easy to see why schools could begin to consider the loan pledge.
But then came the economic downturn and with it a crushing blow to these investments. First, 2008 saw a three percent average drop in the endowments for all schools. But that drop seemed almost inconsequential when contrasted with 2009 where colleges and universities saw an astonishing average endowment decline of 18.7%.
It was the worst average year for endowments over the nearly 40-year period the data has been tracked. It was also 50% higher than the previous worst year, an 11.4% decline in 1974.
The impact was even worse for those institutions with endowments topping $1 billion. On average the decrease stood at 20.5%, but for the three of the largest, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, the decrease topped 25%.
Incidentally, this seems to be a case where private colleges have an advantage over public institutions: boards of trustees voted on this policy, rather than state legislators, so it can be reversed more easily when circumstances change and it becomes financially unsustainable, relative to the task of getting a majority of legislators to go on record taking away an entitlement.
I wonder whether there will be a return to the "loan free" trend after the economy recovers, or if its momentum was killed so fully that it'll be indefinitely reversed. The "need blind" aid philosophy discussed in this 1998 Atlantic article seems to have survived the dot-com bust.