Guest Column: A school falls behind the Joneses

The Daily Stanford Editorial Board

Sustainability, year in and year out, is a Stanford buzzword. From the dining halls to the student government elections, the idea of sustainability underscores the ideal of Stanford as a self-contained environment that is able to flourish steadily from year to year. Yet, one major aspect of Stanford policy seems to be lacking any coherent formula for sustainability: student financial aid.

Last March, it was announced that, in light of the economy and struggling endowment, financial aid spending would be increased in order to meet the demands of new students and the university’s generous aid policies. Now, just this last week, Provost John Etchemendy detailed the approximately $40 million dollar deficit that the financial aid program has accumulated as a result of overstretching its resources. It would seem that, with regard to long-term strategy, the financial aid program at Stanford is lacking the means by which it can immediately sustain both progressive student aid packages and increasing numbers of students.

Financial aid remains one of the most important aspects of the university budget in terms of its impact on students’ livelihoods; without major financial support in the form of scholarships, student loans and work study, many students would be unable to attend Stanford, and a great many would choose one of its peer schools instead. The university appears completely aware of this fact, as for years the primary motivation for Stanford’s annual increases in financial aid offerings seemed to be topping or keeping up with similar policies at Harvard, Yale and other schools.

Yet, these measures were made in much better economic times, and now, in the midst of the recession, Stanford’s aid policy of keeping up with the Joneses – or, in this case, the Harvards and Yales – has put its aid policy in the red. Facing a shrinking endowment and deficit aid spending, the administration needs to focus on making financial aid sustainable from one year to another while ensuring that students who need scholarship support are not left behind.

Underscoring the issue of the financial aid deficit is the issue of where the university, faced with a shrinking endowment, continues to dedicate resources. The recent renovation of Branner Library – a multi-million dollar project – seems almost comical when one considers that the university chose to revamp the walls of the residence hall while the students dwelling inside the walls may face financial aid cuts in the future. Throughout the campus, similar construction and renovation projects are still underway, regardless of their drain on resources that could go to other programs.

To be fair, much of the construction going on across campus was either begun or scheduled before the financial crisis. But the continuation of long-term projects such as renovations, combined with the pressures of a deficit and contracting endowment, does not send the right message to students. To say that financial aid could face cuts in the near future while millions are being spent on aesthetic luxuries is a slap in the face to those who rely on aid to attend Stanford.

One of the problems of the financial situation at Stanford may be that fiscal transparency is still minimal. Even with the budget cuts to the OSA last spring, the university declines to publish line-by-line details of the budget. Students trust the university in its management and administration, but when it comes to understanding the budgetary process, students are mostly left guessing. So, when one asks where this deficit resides, where cuts can be made and what can be done, they may find it hard to discover the real answers. Thus, we are left with two problems when it comes to financial management at Stanford: one of sustainability and another of accountability.

The above editorial was originally published Sept. 29 by Stanford’s The Stanford Daily. Content was made available by Uwire.