Thursday, November 3, 2011

Should affordability efforts pay attention to individuals?

Many of the efforts to improve college affordability focus on systems and institutions--on ways to reduce tuition, or increase aid, or speed time to graduation, for example.  While these paths to lowering cost have different aims and results, they share an assumption--that  the effort to increase affordability should ignore individual cases in favor of making decisions based on demographics (family income, for example, or first-generation status, or enrollees) or market forces.

At this point in the year, though, many enrollment offices are making decisions about affordability based on individual cases.  In the past two weeks alone, three students have come to our financial aid office to ask for individualized attention--additional scholarships for an international student whose family now faces severe financial difficulty, more work-study money for a student whose income has dropped this year, an exemption to policy on scholarship award timing for a student-athlete trying to graduate early.

These cases have left me wondering about how to think about cases in the context of affordability.  Cases matter for morality, because the cases represent real people with specific needs, opportunities, and talents.  Should they matter for policy though?  And if so, how?  I'm not sure I know, but I am confident that policies and rules that do not attend to individual cases fail both in reaching their ends, and in respecting the liberty and skills of the people they are meant to serve.

So, should individual cases matter in efforts to reduce the cost of higher education?  If so, how and when?  

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