- Stanford University will provide free tuition to parents of students who earn less than $125,000 per year — and if they make less than $65,000, they won't have to contribute to room and board costs, either.
- Students are still expected to pay $5,000 toward college costs from summer earnings and working part-time while enrolled in college.
- The announcement is an expansion of Stanford's old financial aid policy, which previously applied to students from families making less than $100,000 per year.
- Most universities can't afford to offer such generous financial aid to their students. But they could draw a lesson from the plan's simplicity.
How Stanford's financial aid works
If a student's parents make less than $125,000 per year, and if they have assets of less than $300,000, excluding retirement accounts, the parents won't be expected to pay anything toward their children's Stanford tuition. Families with incomes lower than $65,000 won't have to contribute to room and board, either.
Students themselves will have to pay up to $5,000 each year from summer earnings, savings, and part-time work. There's no rule that parents can't cover their students' required contribution.
Stanford is much more generous toward middle-class and upper-middle-class students than the federal government is. Most students who get subsidized loans and federal Pell Grants come from families making less than $60,000 per year. But it also enrolls an outsize proportion of wealthy students. In 2010, the university's director of financial aid said the median family income at Stanford was around $125,000.
On the other hand, only 14 percent of entering freshmen got federal Pell Grants in 2012, which typically go to students from families making less than $50,000 per year. Nationally, 41 percent of undergrads received Pell Grants.
Why other colleges can't do this — but what they can learn
Stanford enrolls a high proportion of wealthy students, who pay higher tuition that helps subsidize lower-income peers. And Stanford is one of the world's richest universities, with an endowment of $21 billion.
On the other hand, there's something that every college could emulate about Stanford's policy: it's incredibly simple and straightforward.
Middle-class students know even before they apply to Stanford what they'll have to pay to attend, whether they'll be able to afford it, and how much they'll have to borrow. At most colleges, the amount a family is expected to pay doesn't show up until after students have applied, been accepted, and filled out financial aid paperwork. That's partly because many colleges are stretching their financial aid budgets and don't know what they're dealing with until students have been admitted.
But legislators are trying to make federal financial aid, at least, more transparent, by allowing students to use older tax data when filing the FAFSA. That would allow students to find out how much aid they qualify for up to a year before they start college. Researchers have proposed even earlier notification for students from poor families — letting them know as early as eighth grade that they could qualify for a federal Pell grant.
Most colleges can't match Stanford's generous financial aid commitment. But they could at least try to duplicate its simplicity.