Kentucky voices

Alex Petros: McConnell wrong; prestigious colleges often are more affordable

July 22, 2014 

Alex Petros of Lexington is a rising junior at Yale University, majoring in economics and political science.

  • About the author: Alex Petros of Lexington is a rising junior at Yale University, majoring in economics and political science.

Sen. Mitch McConnell recently offered a solution to the student-debt crisis. He didn't provide any assistance to struggling students by closing tax loopholes for the uber-wealthy (that's the bill he filibustered).

Instead, at a town hall meeting in Oldham County, McConnell explained that "the best short-term solution is for parents to be cost-conscious in shopping around for higher education alternatives. Not everybody needs to go to Yale. I don't know about you guys, but I went to a regular ol' Kentucky college. And some people would say I've done OK."

McConnell's last sentence is certainly debatable. But as a Kentuckian who is directly benefiting from Yale's generous financial aid policies, I take issue with his premise.

Yale prides itself on a need-blind admissions process and has pledged to meet 100 percent of every accepted student's demonstrated financial need. That means every Yale student (including a middle-income student like myself) can graduate debt-free.

Sure, I work to help pay for expenses. At school, I work part-time in the Yale Admissions Office and do a weekly night shift in my residential college's snack bar. Right now, I'm spending the summer interning for the Kentucky Democratic Party.

Yale costs about $60,000 a year, but not everyone pays that (I certainly don't). In 2014, the average Yale scholarship was $41,250, and the college provided more than $119 million in need-based financial aid. Best of all, if your parents make $65,000 a year or less, Yale's parental contribution is absolutely nothing. Zero. All of this can make Yale much more affordable than state schools, and especially for-profit colleges.

Yale is by no means alone among prestigious colleges in offering bountiful financial aid.

If your parents make less than $150,000, Harvard University promises they will pay at most 10 percent of their income. Princeton has seen a 150 percent increase in financial aid payments since 2003. I'm not aware of any such promises at the University of Louisville, where McConnell got his undergraduate degree. In fact, the full fare for a Kentucky resident in 2014-15 is more than $18,000 for tuition, room, board and books.

Of course, it's true that a high-achieving Kentucky student could attend state schools for free through lucrative scholarship programs, the Governor's Scholars Program and/or by turning high school grades into cash through the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship program. Indeed, many of my high school friends spurned offers from prestigious schools to do just that, receiving an excellent education at a bargain price. (Some are actually making a little money in the deal.)

Unfortunately, those are not options for the vast majority of students.

In Kentucky, 62 percent of students leave college owing an average of $22,384. That's a lot, especially for those from low-income families. Instead of being able to re finance their loans to a lower rate under the filibustered plan offered by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, they are pushed to McConnell's suggestion of for-profit schools, some of which have shaky reputations.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with an education at a state school. But if you're worried about paying for college, that's actually a reason to apply to Yale, not the other way around. Yale strives for diversity in every class: racially, socio-economically, and culturally. Yale needs more applications, not fewer, from high-achieving students in Kentucky, especially those from rural areas and low-income families. To all of those on the precipice of applying to college, don't listen to McConnell and put your dreams on the back burner because you're worried about debt.

Kentucky has a brain-drain problem, with many of our brightest students leaving to attend college out of state and never coming back. I love Kentucky (just ask any of my Yale friends about my behavior during University of Kentucky basketball games) and plan to put my Ivy League education to work improving the state that will always be my home.

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