Why does the University offer financial aid? The first reason I’ve heard is that financial aid is a good thing, and the University does good things when it can. The second is that poor people have had significantly fewer opportunities than wealthier people. By offering financial aid, the University is doing its part to make up for that. The third explanation is that UChicago has been awful to disadvantaged communities. Offering financial aid is how it atones for its sins.
None of these explanations seem terribly persuasive. For 2015–16, the University had a financial aid budget of $117 million. If it wanted to do good or help out the poor, that $117 million could do a lot more good outside of Hyde Park than inside it. One hundred seventeen million dollars of funding for homeless shelters, free clinics, or cancer research could do wonders. Whatever your opinions on the merits of a UChicago education, I’m sure you agree that spending money on housing the homeless does more good than spending it on core classes. Because financial aid is such a (relatively) bad way of spending money to do good, I don’t find any of these explanations persuasive. Besides, I doubt that the University spends $117 million to do good; that is what charities do—and UChicago certainly is not a charity. So what could explain its nine-figure spending on financial aid?
The University’s motto might help us understand its massive investment. Translated into English, it reads “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.” UChicago isn’t a charity, it is an organization with a narrow purpose: to increase human knowledge. It offers financial aid to further that purpose. But if this is UChicago’s sole purpose, then why does it teach undergraduates at all? It’s not like undergrads meaningfully contribute to the pool of human knowledge. (Apologies to anyone whose thesis is groundbreaking; mine certainly is not). My best guess is that the University teaches undergraduates so that they can go out and create knowledge after we graduate. In other words, UChicago is like a developmental league—hopefully after our four years here we are prepared to go out and do the tricky work of actually adding knowledge to the world. The University does that by finding the smartest students it can and training them to the best of its ability. To have the best alumni—the alumni who will be most capable of creating new knowledge and fulfilling the University’s mission—UChicago needs the best undergraduates. It seems obvious then why we have financial aid, and it has nothing to do with charity. In order to most effectively do its job, UChicago has to be able to get the highest quality undergrads, and the quality of an undergrad does not correlate with how easily they can bear the $65,000 annual cost of attendance.
Thinking about our motto, it seems kind of offensive that we don’t have more financial aid. Every talented student the University admits who cannot come here for financial reasons is a failed opportunity for the University to live up to its mission. If that is true (and I believe it is), there is a strong argument for UChicago to increase its financial aid spending, and that argument has nothing to do with the University being charitable. Like any effective organization, it should strive to fulfill its mission as well as possible, and financial aid is clearly an essential part of that.
It makes you wonder why financial aid is not fully funded when the University is willing to spend millions on 53rd Street and Washington Park; surely, in order to “let knowledge grow from more to more,” it is more important for UChicago to have an excellent student body than an excellent real estate portfolio. Perhaps the University should reconsider its expenses and spend more on what makes it the world-class institution that it strives to be.
Evan Rocher is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.