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MIT should commit to ensuring that its students can leave the Institvte debt-free.
The cost of higher education is skyrocketing at a rate much faster than inflation, while median incomes are stagnating. MIT's tuition and costs, which have always been among the highest in the country, are no exception. While MIT's publicized commitments to "need-based" financial aid and need-blind admissions are commendable, the "need" determination for the purposes of determining aid is opaque, subject to change during the middle of a student's undergraduate career, and in some cases even less generous than standard Federal guidelines. A financial aid package consisting of 100% loans (including urging of the student to take out additional private loans) is not unheard of. Many private loans accrue interest during student enrollment, which the student probably lacks the income to pay; such income is added to the loan principal on graduation, causing further inflation in the actual cost of debt. A shift in circumstances mid-study can force a student to drop out due to insufficient aid with a massive debt burden, if MIT's "need" determination happens not to correspond to the reality of a student's available resources. And even when the student does graduate, a large debt burden can restrict the new graduate's freedom to pursue riskier ventures.
Recently, our liberal arts colleagues up the river massively expanded their commitment to graduate students debt-free: http://www.fao.fas.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do
Why can't MIT do the same? It's true that Harvard is ludicrously rich with a >$30bn endowment. However, MIT's $10bn is still the 6th-largest university endowment in the US - and that's only if you count the entire University of Texas system as a single school.
In addition, if massive flat-out increases in financial aid are off the table, how about at least committing to giving debt-loaded students a real method to retire that debt quickly while using the skills and minds that got them admitted in the first place? For example, possibilities above and beyond straightforward increases in scholarship aid might include:
* Creating more opportunities for on-leave students and recent graduates to work in MIT labs. Right now, UROP is restricted to registered undergrads. But someone who isn't taking classes doesn't instantly lose the technical qualifications that make them a good fit for those positions. Labs can in theory hire such people as either "voucher" or full-time employees, but there is little incentive or funding for them to do so. Allowing greater flexibility for students to maintain those early/entry-level lab jobs means that students who can't afford a year's tuition aren't automatically cut off from the MIT environment or support network, but instead get to keep learning in a work-based environment, and hopefully smoothly re-integrate when they next have the funds to enroll. Recent grads who may not be ready to apply for graduate schools immediately could instead benefit from remaining plugged in to the academic lab social network to gain experience, skills, and recommendations while paying down undergrad debts.
* One or more on/near-campus startup / technology transfer incubators. (Example: BU's Photonics Center.) Get MIT into entrepreneurship (revenue-positive!), fund promising technology spinoffs from MIT labs that are best developed in a commercial environment, amortize costly specialty labs facilities among multiple projects in a field, and most importantly, provide a hand-in-glove program to give graduates and on-leavers laboring under a debt burden employment opportunities to pay off those loans fast while benefiting MIT in the process.
* Identify MIT internal jobs and projects which might benefit from being able to entice highly skilled recent graduates; offer accelerated loan forgiveness as a job perk. (If MIT can offer internal tuition reimbursement for special-student classes to staff, this is hardly outlandish.) Let's get some motivated VI-ers in the mix for the Libraries' ongoing digital offering efforts, or some awesome IV grads to join the architecture team for the next major construction project. Heck, let's get some Sloanies working on the problem of affordability! This might also be a method of leveraging recent alumni who aren't necessarily enrolled in a grad program to assist with instruction/education tasks (grading, tutoring, workshopping, advisory assistance, etc.) and ease the load on overworked grad TAs.
* Instead of standard loans, allow students to "borrow" by committing a fixed (or progressively tiered or whatever) percentage of their future income for some bounded number of years, after which all debt is retired. In effect, MIT is investing in a graduate's future earning potential. If the graduate does well, MIT does well. (And thus it's in MIT's direct financial interest to make sure its graduates succeed!) If not, the student is at least not punished for being un- or underemployed. I'm sure that some actuarial genius could come up with a scale which would preserve or even increase MIT's expected revenue while being lenient to graduates who don't do as well.
I'm sure that the community can pick holes in these; they represent the result of an hour's brainstorming, not a careful cost analysis. But even if the above ideas don't have legs, let's not lose sight of the larger issue, which is the massive cost burden of attending this university. Let's start thinking outside the box and come up with ways to make sure no student ever again has to listen to a financial aid officer tell them, "Well, I guess if you don't like it you should go to a state school."
PS: Alumni struggling with student loan debt don't tend to be generous donors.