In 2008, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was among the elite colleges and universities announcing that it was eliminating the need for low-income students to take out student loans.  Now, a little more quietly, MIT has become the latest elite institution to scale back its aid plan. And MIT's changes may well make many of even its lowest-income students borrow (albeit modestly).
MIT's approach to the issue has been slightly different from those of other colleges and universities -- some of which have scaled back their "no loans" pledges while still preserving them for the lowest-income students. In fact, for reasons that may be unique to MIT, the university has moved to a policy of having the same "self help" portion of aid packages (the portion that students must provide through work, loans and other sources of funds) for all students, regardless of income levels.
Elizabeth Hicks, executive director of student financial services at MIT, explained that when the university went "no loans," what it really did was set one self-help level of $2,850 (for students from families with incomes under $75,000), while the self-help level for all other students was $6,000. Because students in the lower income group could earn their self-help through work-study or other jobs, they could avoid borrowing. MIT also allows students to use outside scholarships toward self-help, minimizing the need to borrow for those in the low-income group.
Hicks said that MIT has been gradually moving self-help expectations for the low-income group up, to the point that they are now equal with those for other students.
MIT has been concerned that spending on student aid has been increasing at faster rates than the rest of the budget, Hicks said, but there were other motivations as well for the policy shift.
She said that the old policy has "cliff effects" where people earning just over $75,000 had much higher self-help expectations than those with incomes just under that level, even though they were only marginally wealthier. She said that the new policy is "nuanced" in that it lets students decide how to meet their share of the aid packages.
There may still be students who avoid loans, she said, either by obtaining outside grants or by working more in the summer or minimizing expenses during the academic year. But she acknowledged that it would "be hard" for many students in the low-income levels to avoid some loans. "For the most part, more students will need to borrow." The percentage of students borrowing -- for this year's graduating class, that was 41 percent -- is "likely to creep up."
Hicks also noted that MIT's academic programs prepare students for well-paying jobs, even in the economic downturn. "Given our starting salaries, [taking out loans] is a reasonable investment," she said.
The move by elite colleges to go no-loans took place in the year before the fall 2008 collapse on Wall Street -- and in the endowments for those colleges. So MIT is hardly the first to pull back. In 2010, Dartmouth and Williams Colleges  scaled back their policies.
Then this year, Wesleyan University  moved away from its policy of need-blind admissions, in which applicants' need for aid is not considered. (All of the other colleges and universities in this article have stuck by need-blind admissions.) And in July, Cornell University  announced that it was moving down the family income level at which students wouldn't have to borrow from $75,000 to $60,000.