By graduating in the top 3 percent of her high school class, she met or surpassed the admission requirements for scores of U.S. universities, but she wished to remain in North Carolina. “I wanted to stay close to my mom,” she says. “My whole life, I’ve only had her and she’s only had me.” Klaiklung applied to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Davidson College and got into both. Chapel Hill is often ranked as the best value in public education. In-state tuition for her freshman year, 2009-10, would be just $5,600 compared with $35,000 at Davidson. But Davidson made Eileen an offer she couldn’t refuse.
“When I got my acceptance letter and my tuition bill, it told us that everything was mostly paid for,” she recalls. “I had heard something about Davidson’s no-loan policy, but it didn’t make sense because it sounded too good to be true. My mom was like, ‘This can’t be right. We need to go talk to them.’ ” The admission counselor explained that, because of the Davidson Trust, the school was able to cover 100 percent of demonstrated need without loans. Her mother cried. “At the time, I felt kind of embarrassed. When we walked back to my car, she said, ‘I’m so happy. I feel like I should make [the counselor] something.’ ”
Klaiklung, now a senior, is a member of what will be the third class at Davidson to graduate debt-free, and part of the school’s ongoing experiment in how to solve thestudent loan mess by eliminating it. (Students can still borrow money if they feel they need more for, say, a trip to teach abroad, or other expenses.) Davidson is not the only school to remove student loans from its financial aid packages. In 2001, Princeton University became the first to replace loans with grants. Sixty percent of Princeton’s Class of 2013 received financial aid, with an average grant of $36,000. Since then, Harvard, Swarthmore, Stanford, Columbia, and Vanderbilt are among the 75 or so colleges that have reduced, capped, or eliminated loans in financial aid packages for all undergraduate students. On a cost basis, this puts those private institutions on a par with in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.
All the same, Davidson stands out as an especially intriguing model. It has fewer students, about 1,900, and a much smaller endowment than the Ivy League, and because it remains devoted to the relatively expensive and exclusive 19th century ideal of the university. By its own account, its five-year-old grants program has been successful, but it remains an open question if it’s sustainable or replicable.
Located about 20 miles north of Charlotte in the town of Davidson, the campus’s brick buildings and 100-year-old oak trees make it seem like a New England idyll in the middle of a Southern mill town. Its Presbyterian roots are evident in patrician rules and standards that can seem quaint today. Community service is mandatory. Students are required to live on campus all four years, although juniors and seniors may seek permission to move to an off-campus apartment. Their wash is done for free at the campus laundry. Incoming students must sign the Davidson Honor Code, pledging to refrain from stealing, lying, or cheating on academic work. They also must report any honor code violations; failure to do so is itself a violation. Infractions are brought before the Honor Council where punishment is decided.
“We take it very seriously,” says Tianna Butler, a senior from Salisbury, Md. “You’ll see laptops on the lawn, or somebody will leave their MacBook in the library and go into the other room to take a nap. People don’t steal your stuff here.”
Established in 1837 as a Presbyterian manual labor school for young men, Davidson College is named for a local Revolutionary War hero, Brigadier General William Lee Davidson. A fixture on “top liberal arts colleges” lists, it has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and counts President Woodrow Wilson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, late White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, novelist Patricia Cornwell, and Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx among its alumni. The first-year retention rate is 96 percent, 88 percent of its students graduate in four years, and about 95 percent are employed, in graduate school, or on fellowship within six months of graduation.
Davidson tuition for the 2012-13 academic year is $40,809, with an additional $11,346 for room and board. Determining how much financial aid a student receives to cover the $52,000 price tag is a complicated mix of factors, including income, assets, and the number of dependents who are in or will be attending college. Grants can include books, spending money, as well as funds to cover extracurricular activities such as community outreach or fees to take the LSAT or GRE.