Stanford University's hefty tuition will inch a bit higher next year to $45,729. But it will also be free for students whose parents who make less than $125,000 a year. Students whose parents make less than $65,000 won't have to pay room and board either.
Last week, Stanford announced that it was expanding the financial assistance program it created in 2008 to make tuition free for low and middle-income students. Originally, parents had to make less than $100,000 in order to qualify for free tuition, but that number has been boosted to $125,000, a figure that a number of economists consider a basis for deeming a household more affluent than middle class.
The earlier number to qualify for both free tuition and room and board (which will be more than $14,000 next year) was also a bit less — $60,000. Students are expected to contribute $5,000 a year for expenses from summer income, part-time work and savings.
In addition to income, assets are a factor for eligibility. The parents of a student need to have less than $300,000 in assets, not including their retirement accounts, according to Libby Nelson at Vox.
Why it matters: This has serious consequences for the way tuition is handled for Stanford's student body. Like most elite academic institutions, Stanford's student body is wealthy. As Nelson points out, the median family income at the university was estimated to be around $125,000 in 2010. Compare that to the median household income nationally, which was around $52,000 in 2013.
So why is Stanford catering to the comfortable? A yearly income of $125,000 is widely considered to make a household at least upper middle class; in some areas of the U.S., it allows for a quality of life that could reasonably be characterized as rich.
It's mainly an effort at combating the runaway costs of private higher education in the U.S., which is nothing short of a crisis that threatens to make degrees an exclusive luxury commodity. (Elite universities' student bodies have always skewed wealthy, but higher tuition poses another barrier to entry for students of less fortunate means.)
Stanford is by no means unique in its free tuition offers. A number of other elite schools, such as Harvard and Princeton universities, offer comparable or more generous programs for their students.
These schools, which have endowments that dwarf the gross domestic product of some countries, are well-positioned to expand aid policies to ensure that their student body doesn't simply resemble a country club. Unfortunately, the vast majority of private schools that don't have the same reputation and endowment in fact rely on high tuition to compete with the best schools, and also as a way of signaling quality to students unacquainted with their name. They're involved in a very real tuition arms race.
There's a deeper issue here in the way education is financed that we will need to address if we wish to avert the destruction of accessible education.