University of Vermont

Financial Aid: Boon or Bane?

Latest Janus Forum examines impact of federal financial aid on higher ed costs

Warm, sunny weather offered some competition for Tuesday’s Janus Forum debate -- "Does Federal Support for Higher Education Make College More or Less Affordable?” – but the serious-minded mix of faculty, staff, students and community members who chose to spend the afternoon indoors in the Davis Center’s Silver Maple Ballroom were rewarded with a spirited and enlightening exchange of ideas.

In considering the relationship between aid and costs, the debaters found little to agree on. 

According to aid opponent Richard Vedder, distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University, the explosion in federal aid that began in the 1970s has not only not increased access for low income students, it’s led to rising prices for all, as colleges routinely hiked tuition in response to growing federal largesse.

Not true, said proponent Robert Archibald, chancellor professor of economics at the College of William and Mary, who went second and had the luxury of challenging Vedder's positions throughout the debate. His research shows aid resulted in greater access for low-income students and lower real costs for all. Without it, colleges would be forced to discount steeply for low-income students and compensate with higher tuition for everyone else. 

Higher ed costs are also rising, Vedder maintained, because colleges spend lavishly on new buildings, unnecessary staff (Vedder envisioned a day when faculty members would each have their own personal staff support) and other non-academic matters.

Not so, said Archibald. Higher ed costs have increased at much the same rate as other services provided by highly educated professionals – doctors and lawyers, for instance. Archibald said staff additions have been largely necessary and justifiable, in technology support and fundraising, for instance.

Both speakers noted that the topic was one of particular interest to the audience.

“I have an impossible job," Vedder said in his opening: "arguing against the merits of financial aid to an audience of supplicants in 80 degree temperatures,”

“I did draw the long straw,” Archibald acknowledged. 

Read more background on the speakers.