College at Stanford is now effectively free. So what’s your excuse?

Ramit Sethi

Last night at 1:30am, I received an email from Stanford, which read:

Tomorrow, Stanford will announce significant changes in its financial aid program that will make undergraduate education more affordable for families receiving aid. We want you, our alumni, to be among the first to hear this news.


Stanford University today announced the largest increase in its history for its financial aid program for undergraduates.

Under the new program, parents with incomes of less than $100,000 will no longer pay tuition. Parents with incomes of less than $60,000 will not be expected to pay tuition or contribute to the costs of room, board and other expenses.

The program also eliminates the need for student loans.

What a breathtaking move. By following in other top universities’ recent moves, Stanford and all of America’s top universities have effectively made themselves free for families without high incomes.

But what’s even more interesting is the fact that it removes yet another barrier for high-school students who wouldn’t apply to Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, etc. When I was in high school, the single-best deterrent to applying to a top university was not my friends’ actual financial situations. It was not their GPA or list of activities or their access to a computer.

It was just their conviction that they couldn’t get in.

Oh yes, they had dozens of reasons why they wouldn’t bother applying. “I couldn’t get in if I tried,” many of them said. Or the limited-resources fallacy: “They’d never take me because the other students applying are way more qualified than I am.” (It’s true that Stanford rejects enough valedictorians to fill its freshman class each year.) Perhaps most sadly, “I couldn’t afford it even if I got in,” they say, despite Stanford’s own website explaining that , “Financial aid was provided to about 77 percent of undergraduate students…in 2005-2006.” (I’m so fanatical about scholarships that I wrote up a guide to get over $100,000 in scholarships.)

And so the students who don’t apply select themselves out and, by definition, never have a chance.

Guess what?

This is about more than college admission.

The world is making it easier for people to excel. Blogs make it possible to get larger readerships than most national columnists. You can reach anyone with a single email. And the best education at the best universities is now nearly free.

I guess the question is, when all the barriers you’ve been holding on begin dwindling away, what do you do? Grasp around for another excuse? Or change and do something?

* * *
PS–I know many of you have younger brothers and sisters in high school. Please do me a favor and send them this post. The links in this post alone have enough information to get them thousands of dollars in scholarships.

[Update, 2/21: See an amazing response to this post here]

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  1. Sebastian

    What University would you recommend for a part time MBA programme?
    I have seen, Stanford does not offer part time MBA. I am from Germany and want to add a MBA to my Bachelor degree. I have seen that Berkeley offers part time MBA. My specialization would be marketing.

  2. Gringo

    All I can say is WOW. That could have saved me a lot of money!

    I was accepted back in the day but could not afford to go…

  3. Enrique,Tallahassee,Florida

    Free tuition and board goes with our American values that even the poorest in our nation can make it if given the chance.

  4. Rani

    does this apply for international students as well?

    to sebastian: my husband went to university of memphis MBA in marketing.

  5. Laura

    I’m definitely telling my cousins about this. Some of them graduate next year. Thanks!

  6. Ed

    This is a great move by Universities in the US. Back where I live, Asian country where population growth is faster, getting into a university can be an expensive affair.

    Government sponsored universities are affordable but there are quota along racial lines. The private run colleges with affiliation to universities in the US, UK or Australia cost quite a lot more.

    I look to the day when barrier education are lowered further here.

  7. PaMidstate

    One of my college classes was only going to accept 10 students to a ratio of 4 professors. So, they required a resume in addition to an interview, even though most professors knew each applying student already.

    I really wanted to be in that class, but I did not think I was near the level to acquire a spot.

    As it turns out, I ended up with one of the highest GPA’s that applied and a good resume/interview. I thought I would not get to work with this team. I applied and had under-estimated my ability (or their perception of it…)

    (Note: Some really smart kids simply didn’t apply for this class. See, I still under-estimate.)

    Point: Do not make false estimations of your worth.

  8. Don

    That’s really great news. Does Standford have any online degree programs? I’d love to get my bachelor’s degree, but can’t exactly uproot my family or leave my job to do it.

  9. Chris Sanders

    I do love to hear about moves like this by universities, but I still think the problem lies with admissions requirements.

    I see SO many talented people who can’t get in to upper tier schools because they get sub par marks in high level math or literature or some other single area of study. As a matter of fact, I was one of those kids. Straight A’s in everything but math, regardless of how hard I worked. Because of this, I couldn’t get in to any of the schools I wanted to go to (Standford, MIT, Carnegie-Mellon are good examples). I ended up having to settle for a local college (Murray State University). What did the universities who rejected me miss out on? At age 21 I am now a published author having written a book that sold over 10,000 copies and am widely known as an expert in my field. Because of this I have brought quite a few accolades to MSU as a result of my success. I believe this happens all of the time. I shudder to think what I could have accomplished with an MIT education backing me.

    I guess in my venting what I am trying to say is that I don’t believe finances are nearly as a big of a problem as admissions criteria that are unjust. I couldn’t necessarily afford these schools out of my pocket (I’m the son of a Trucker and a Factory Worker), but I know that if I had gotten in to these schools then I would have FOUND a way to pay for it.

  10. Crystal

    What is more important to me is how the costs incurred by these students will be subsidized? Will they continue to raise tuition for everyone else? Will they seek private funding from alumni, thereby likely reducing the amount that other Stanford programs may rely on on a yearly basis?

  11. Dennis

    This is great news. It’s good to see universities act more like educational centers instead of business’. I don’t like to make excuses for people. I think if you try hard enough you can accomplish anything. But this is important because it will hopefully help other people believe in themselves once the financial barrier is removed.

  12. Ed Roberts

    Interesting. I see this almost as “we are now counting financial status into our admission process.” It will be interesting to see how many of these non-tuition rides will be given verses how many sub-100k people there have been in the past.

  13. Kendrick

    As someone whose parents make well over $100,000, and refused to pay anything for my college education, things like this bug the hell out of me.

    Please explain to me why financial aid should be based on what your parents can contribute to your education, rather than what they actually do.

  14. Enrique,Tallahassee,Florida

    To Sebastain:

    As an international students, there might a few more requirements to fill before you are accepted to a U.S. university.
    I know Duke University in North Carolina has a strong international MBA program but I dont’ know about their Marketing department.

  15. hump day links;; 2.20.08

    […] will now be TUITION FREE to those who’s parents make under 100k a year! Can you believe […]

  16. Matt

    Now why couldn’t they have done this when I was contemplating going there? Being out of country my costs for going to Standford ended up being the main reason for not even applying.

    There are programs out there to help students who are trying to excel and the only thing that’s stopping these people are themselves.

  17. Nathan

    I think Kendrick has a point, but I do think this is a great first step. It’s great to see that private institutions are starting to implement these, so long as they do not consider it a significant factor for admissions, and do not beginning flat out rejecting otherwise qualified students simply because they would end up footing the bill.

    PS: I was one of those valedictorians who was rejected, though ended up going to an equally competitive school. I personally know of a couple other valedictorians who were also rejected. As someone who thinks grades are overrated, I always found that stat rather amusing.

  18. Ben

    This screws the great public universities of this country. Berkeley, Michigan, UNC, and etc, who compete for better talent for lower prices.

  19. sri

    should one of the parents quit their jobs to make thier income below $100K so that their kid can get free ivy league education?

  20. No excuses, your kid can go to Standford too! « styleosophy

    […] Read what Ramit Sethi said about this topic, he totally nailed it and all the random, blathered up excuses as to why we put the barriers up before we even try. Read about it here. […]

  21. eew

    What do my parents have to do with MY college tuition? So many students go to college with the knowledge that if accepted, they would be paying some serious student loans after graduation. It’s just the way of the world. I STRONGLY believe students should be given financial aid and scholarships based on MERIT only regardless of whether or not your parents are dirt broke or filthy rich. I came from a dirt broke situation and now I make money because i worked my ass off to get it. Why are we all of a sudden “everything must be fair?” ? explain this to me please. WHat happened to “wanna go to college for free? work your ass off and get a scholarship!” ? ok i’m done with my rant.

  22. Vik

    FYI, the “barriers are your enemy” link isn’t working. It gives the “”Really sorry, but I can’t find the page you’re looking for. Instead, you can look at the pretty picture above. If you click refresh, I’ll even show you a different picture. Or check out the table of contents.” -The Computer” page.

  23. Ramit Sethi

    Vik, thanks. Fixed.

  24. Carlin

    I would agree with the poster that mentioned admission criteria can exclude a lot of talented people. How you did on a couple tests and in high school is not an the end all be all of how you’re going to do in college and later in your life. I have more respect and admiration for a college that will give someone a chance as opposed to a college that is highly selective. You earn your right to be there by working your ass off while you are there in my opinion. You can’t accept everyone, and I know the criteria help you pick the students you think will have the most success, but GPAs, test scores, canned essays mean nothing if you don’t perform when you’re there. And a disservice is done if someone who could blow the doors off of Stanford in certain respects doesn’t get in because they don’t do well with multiple choice tests. Being able to go for free doesn’t really matter then.

  25. Glenn

    Well, the point of admission criteria IS to narrow down the slew of applications they receive into a more manageable bunch. Where is the disservice in rejecting someone who does not do well on standardized tests when they will most likely accept someone who WILL “blow the doors off of Stanford” AND will do well on standardized tests…

    Another thing to note is that only those with parents who earn less than $60k will actually go to free relatively debt-free. The room/board and peripherals are the items which cost alot imho.

  26. JohnofScribbleSheet

    I am guessing Stanford will see a jump in applications now1

  27. Stanford devine gratuit pentru undergrazi : Razvan Roman

    […] via amicul […]

  28. Enrique

    To eew who is raving and ranting. If you look it from another angle, isn’t a scholarship a give away? In many countries, no matter how smart you are if you don’t have money, you can not attend college.

    All these students are qualified. What is the point of starting your career with a $100,000 student loan debt?

    You need to chill and see the big picture. Maybe, Ramit can take you to India or I wil take you to Nicaragua.

  29. Josh Broghammer

    “It’s just the way of the world. I STRONGLY believe students should be given financial aid and scholarships based on MERIT only regardless of whether or not your parents are dirt broke or filthy rich.”

    Although I agree with you in principle, one must remember the dirt broke kid may have to go to a crappy high school because he lives in a bad neighborhood. He may be a genius who works hard but he’s never going to have the opportunities as the filthy rich kid. Some people deserve a break and to be given a chance

  30. Jesse

    Ramit, a lot of it has to do with the size of the endowments. In fact Yale, with a $23 billion endowment could charge ALL undergrads absolutely NOTHING. Nothing at all!

  31. David Tanner

    >You can reach anyone with a single email.


    Awesome! Millions of people on the planet struggling to get their next meal, but apparently I can email them.

  32. Ramit Sethi

    Wow David! You’re really good at nitpicking every last line! Good job!

  33. Jason

    Great post man, you write with conviction and it is inspiring. Lately I’ve become allergic to all of my self-imagined barriers. I kick them down whenever I can. I wish someone drilled this stuff into me when I was a teenager.

  34. » Tuition at Stanford now free.

    […] Tuition to Stanford now free. So what’s your excuse? […]

  35. Go to college for free « The State of the State of WV

    […] Go to college for free College at Stanford is now effectively free. So what’s your excuse? […]

  36. Tuition at Stanford now free « the brain grenade

    […] Tuition to Stanford now free. Posted by thebraingrenade Filed in useful, web junk Tags: free, Stanford, tuition […]

  37. Fabian Tavernier

    I have paid off about $25K in student loans and still have $40K to go. I applaud Stanford and the other Universities for what they are doing. It’s a burden paying off such high debt although I do not regret it.

  38. Stephen

    Wow, It seems like this is a pretty hot topic. I think Stanford has great intentions, but more than anything this is about some good press.
    I wrote a blog (ie my opinion) about how many students will actually benefit from this program…read here :

    my guess is that not many will actually qualify…

  39. Ramit Sethi

    Stephen, the article you linked to has zero research. The writer didn’t even bother to look up how many people this would affect (which was widely publicized). Talk about a waste of time.

  40. The Simple Dollar » The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: Final Countdown Edition

    […] College at Stanford Is Now Effectively Free. So What’s Your Excuse? I was accepted at several top-tier schools, but I couldn’t afford to go to any of them. Their financial aid packages still left me paying more each year than my parents had ever brought in – and that didn’t include the burden of traveling. I wound up going to a state school. (@ i will teach you to be rich) […]

  41. Mo-Town

    This is certainly a commendable move by Stanford, but your statement that getting a Stanford education is “effectively free” doesn’t hold true for a lot of folks in the middle to upper-middle class.

    Like Trent as The Simply Dollar, I was accepted to an Ivy League school (Princeton), but turned it down. My father was a geologist working for the government and my mother was a school teacher. They didn’t make anywhere near enough to afford the $30K a year in tuition/room and board, but they made too much to qualify for any meaningful financial aid.

    Would things have been different if Ivy League schools had been waiving tuition and room and board for families making less than $100K per year? Not for me. My family’s income was something like $110K per year. If I had attended Princeton, I would have incurred over $100K in student loans for a BA.

    Instead, I attended UC Irvine and went on to get my law degree at the University of Hawaii, incurring a total of about $30K in student loans. Do I regret passing on Princeton? Not really.

    So when you pose a question like “what’s your excuse,” my response is this: programs like this are great for the poor and lower-middle class, but many of us in the middle and upper-middle classes don’t qualify for assistance.

  42. Ramit Sethi

    Mo-Town: Check Stanford’s announcements in today’s Stanford Daily. They’ve adjusted a sliding scale to make tuition affordable for middle-class incomes, too.

  43. !wanda

    @Chris Sanders: MIT and Carnegie-Mellon are specifically looking for mathematical and engineering talent. (Well, C-M has a good art program too, but I’m assuming that’s not what you were applying to.) I *did* get all A’s in HS math and in several college math courses up to multivar that I took during HS, but then I went to Caltech for undergrad. The Caltech undergrad math courses (for everyone! I was a biology major!) took my math knowledge and mopped the floor with it. I was fighting hard not to get C’s. If you can’t get an A in HS math “no matter how hard you try,” you shouldn’t go to MIT or another school with a curriculum saturated with intense higher-level math.

    It sounds like you made the right choice in terms of schools, actually.

  44. Mo-Town


    Are you referring to the February 25 article entitled “Aid Office Details Changes?” I’ve read the article, and although it mentions a “sliding scale” for room and board fees for families in the $60K – $100K range, the families I referred to in my post – those making over $100K – will still pay 100% of room and board costs. Moreover, although the article hints at reduced tuition bills for the families referred to in my post, there is no specific discussion of how, or more importantly, the extent to which tuition would be reduced for this category of family.

    Will Stanford be less expensive for middle and upper-middle class families as a result of this program? Sure, but for many middle and upper-middle class families, less expensive does not equal more affordable.

  45. Rob

    Looks like the comment from Stephen is right on. And Ramit, the author of that blog did show his research easily verified with some googleing. This is just going to further inflate the cost of tuition.

  46. Ramit Sethi

    !wanda, great comment.

    Rob, I took a look at the blog again. You’re right, I shouldn’t have been so harsh — the scenarios there are all right. But how will this inflate the cost of inflation?

    There are two issues here: Is this a good thing? And is it good enough? People seem to have a problem with Stanford not going far enough.

    That’s certainly a valid argument, but I think it misses the point. For most people, the problem is not the money — the problem is getting in. If you’re good enough to get in, top universities will find a way to make the finances work. Remember that the schools need you and you need them. There are exceptions, of course, but I know this first-hand: My financial-aid package from Stanford was excellent.

  47. Dustin

    Wow! As someone who could’ve made it into these schools but chose to attend a public school because it was free, I’m jealous! However, I already sent a link to this article to my sister, who will be applying to colleges within the next year. I hope she is able to take advantage of this increase in financial aid.

  48. Stephen

    Thank you for re-reading my blog. I dont mean to be negative towards Stanford. I think its a great idea, but maybe not good enough.
    Money should not be a deciding factor in applying or choosing a school. I think that is the message that needs to be preached. Kids need to know how to compare award letters from the institutions that they apply to. That is the only way to effectively compare apples to apples.
    And for you readers out there going to school…Ramit makes an excellent point, they need you as much as you need them! If you are a good student and show talent in a particular field, that school may need that and will find a way to get you there. True Example: someone I know is an excellent trombone player. Oklahoma State’s #1 trombone player in the band is a senior and graduating. He got an awesome financial aid package from OSU, but the other schools didnt offer him much at all!

  49. lhamo

    I got a BA/MA/PhD at an excellent state school debt free — didn’t really consider other options as I found an excellent fit at my state school and I did not want to take on debt. I had some merit scholarship as an undergraduate, and my graduate studies were financed mostly by different fellowships, grants and teaching/research positions. In the cases of the grants, I cannot tell you how many times my fellow grad students would start bemoaning my “good luck” in getting such opportunities and then, when asked, admit that they did not bother applying to the same grants I did. Many just assumed they had no chance. The thing with scholarships and grants that a lot of people don’t realize is that once you get on that ride it often just gets better and better — people screening the applications see that you got X or Y prestigious award and think they can’t go wrong by selecting you, too. But so many people think they don’t have a chance, and give up before they even start.

    What I wonder about these changes by Stanford and other schools is how they will screen out people who tinker with their income/assets so that they will fit the new criteria. Will taking a sabbatical in your kid’s junior year become all the rage? If you can save yourself over $200k in tuition, room and board charges by going without your 100k+ salary for a year, why not just have an extended vacation?

  50. Stanford 92 grad

    When I applied to college in 1988 I was completely ignorant of financial aid. I had no idea what my parents made, how it was going to be paid for, or anything. I got great grades, played all sports, joined all kinds of school clubs, so I was a well-rounded student and got a handful of smallish scholarships.

    It still left a huge gap in financial aid. My family was pretty much middle-class so we didn’t get too much aid. Yale offered nothing at all really, MIT was a little nicer, but by far Stanford offered the best FA package.

    However, I knew many kids at Stanford who got great financial aid packages Freshman year and then something crazy happened Sophomore year – a lot of that aid dropped dramatically. They seemed to have lured us in with such great aid and then each year after the amount offered was less and less. I knew some kids who had to leave.

    So, I welcome this new trend for the elite schools and I sincerely hope that it’s not something that is great for freshman year only…

  51. Miss Alyssa

    How do I apply for such an amazing opportunity?

  52. Ron

    Trick is getting in not affording it.