What About a "Debt" of Gratitude?

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: May 01, 2008 10:20 PM
For some time, Michelle Obama has been wont to complain about the crushing debts she and her husband incurred for their educations (at Princeton/Harvard Law School and Columbia/Harvard Law School, respectively).

Set aside for a minute the fact that the type of elite schools the Obamas attended have long had "need blind admissions" -- that is, the schools accept students without regard to ability to pay, and commit to helping them find a way to afford to attend.  That fact alone speaks volumes about the commitment to meritocracy and equality in this country.

Even so, Michelle Obama has neglected to mention some very relevant changes affecting bright young students like she and Barack were.  Since 2001, her alma mater, Princeton, has had a no-loan policy -- that is, the educations of those who can't pay are subsidized entirely by grants, so that they incur no debt upon graduation. Similarly, Harvard Law School (of which both Obamas are alums) has recently announced that it will waive the third-year tuition ENTIRELY for students who pledge to work in nonprofit jobs for five years after graduation.  Other elite universities are following suit.

Given the increasingly generous assistance that students at Ivy League universities are receiving -- and the remarkable efforts Princeton and Harvard have made --  it's a little ungracious and a little disingenuous for Mrs. Obama to continue to bemoan the debts being shouldered by young graduates pining for public service work, like she and her husband once were. (Incidentally, it's also interesting -- and perhaps revealing -- that undergirding her complaints is the assumption that everyone should be entitled to attend the best universities in the country without paying.)

Finally, it's worth considering for a moment some of what enables the universities to be so generous.  Has Mrs. Obama ever appreciated the role that annual giving (donations, in large part, by the rich white males routinely derided by the radical chic on elite campuses) has played in making her life -- and the lives of those coming after her -- so much easier?

Strikes me that, rather than complaining, Mrs. Obama owes more than a few debts of gratitude -- and they're apparently in arrears.