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Thane Scott calls it charity. Two weeks ago, the lawyer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology presented the school's opening argument as part of a trial in which the U.S. government charges that MIT and the eight Ivy League schools conspired to set tuition prices. The Ivies settled with the goverment, leaving MIT to fend for itself in the two-week trial. In his opening argument, MIT's lawyer said that the so-called Overlap schools operated in the "charitable world" rather than the competitive business environment. In this "charitable community," current antitrust laws shouldn't apply, he argued. Charity, charity, charity, charity, charity. He repeated the word over and over. And although he represented MIT, his opinions probably reflect every school in the Ivy League. At the very least, the schools agree adamantly that the Overlap Group was the right thing to do. According to Scott, the Overlap schools were simply a "group of charities who were acting cooperatively to meet the need of the neediest of our communities." "This is the function of charities," he said. "They exist to meet need." Perhaps. But I'm sure students everywhere who receive financial aid were surprised to learn they were charity cases. More than surprised -- even a bit offended, perhaps. Or a lot offended. You see, these would-be charity cases don't look at themselves as such. They consider themselves among the best students these schools could get their hands on. And they are right. Describing financial aid as a form of charity is garbage. And I use that word charitably. When I think of charity I think of giving ten bucks to the United Way rather than blowing it on a dozen Milky Way bars and a hoagie at Subway. It's altruistic. It involves giving up something I want for others and perhaps receive some satisfaction in return. The schools in the Overlap Group, however, receive far more than satisfaction for offering need-based financial aid. It's a necessity that helps them compete in both scholarship and prestige. Consequently, it isn't a selfless form of charity. Of course, Overlap schools weren't forced to offer financial aid, and they did not always offer it to guarantee that everyone qualified to attend could afford to attend. It's been my impression that at one time, Ivy League schools operated under more of a "If you have to ask, you can't afford it" system. In other words, there wasn't much in the way of grants and work study money for most students, since most students were the sons of fairly well-to-do families. Yet somewhere along the way, outside pressure -- or a change of heart -- changed all that. First of all, people realized that the list of the top however-many students in the country was not necessarily the same list at the top students in the country who were able to pay. In other words, just because a student could not afford to attend an Ivy League school did not preclude that student from getting higher S.A.T. scores and better grades than the people who could afford it. That being the case, schools may have concluded that making it possible for all qualified students to attend -- regardless of financial considerations -- leads to a higher-quality student body. And it stood to reason that better students would have a better chance of achieving fame and fortune later on, which would only add to the school's prestige. Meanwhile, the better students made for a better intellectual atmosphere on campus. Secondly, schools may have had another reason for offering need-based financial aid. They may have noticed that the ability of students to pay varied widely depending on gender, or religion, or ethnic or racial background. Consequently, the schools were almost exclusively made up of non-minority students. This homogeneity -- this consistency among the student body -- meant students and professors were exposed to somewhat narrow perspectives and a limited learning environment. Of course, these reasons haven't changed much. It is still true that the best students aren't always the ones most able to pay, and that those students who are least able to pay are often minority members. Providing need-based financial aid improves schools. It attracts better students. Broadens the curriculum. Enlivens the intellectual atmosphere on campus. Exposes everyone to new perspectives and different ways of thinking. Enhances a school's prestige now, and probably in the future as well. Providing need-based financial aid is hardly a form of charity. Rather, it's a necessity. Without it, a school couldn't realistically -- or idealistically -- hope to compete with other schools that offer it. It's one of those things that even when a school can't afford it, it can't afford to do without it. The court can decide the merits of MIT's defense of why schools met to discuss financial aid. MIT argues that the meetings made financial aid offices more efficient and less wasteful. I simply say that if schools were not efficient, they would be letting themselves down. When it comes to financial aid -- largely a self-imposed duty -- they would be negligent not to spread the scarce money around as fairly as possible. So how could it be considered charity? Someday perhaps, schools will be rolling in dough, and every student will be rich anyway so that no one will need financial aid. Then we can throw scholarship money at anyone who wants it. That would be charity. Or would it? It wouldn't contribute to the campus like more professors, new laboratory equipment, improved buildings and better research funding would. It would be charity, but it would cease to be for the best cause. Many of the other things schools spend money on would suddenly be better causes, or else the school could lower tuition. Financial aid would become selfless, but pretty stupid. But for now -- and way, way, way into the forseeable future -- students receiving need-based financial aid are an equally good cause. They simply are not charity cases. Which isn't to say that aren't grateful. But while these students may feel lucky to be at these schools, the schools should start feeling lucky to have them here.

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