NORTHAMPTON -- Until this year, the Smith College students living in Wilder House used to eat dinner like an old-fashioned family, gathering in their dorm's quaint dining room at the same time every night and lingering in conversation long after the food was gone.
But this year, Wilder House residents eat their meals scattered across campus, in dining halls that are often hectic, overcrowded, and full of students they don't know. The intimate setting they lost was a cherished Smith tradition, but college officials consolidated dining halls in favor of other goals, foremost their effort to make a Smith education affordable.
The high cost of college, once primarily a burden on students and their families, has increasingly become a burden on institutions, as well. As tuition and fees rise faster than family budgets, to pay for everything from salaries and healthcare to advancing technology, so does financial aid, especially at schools like Smith that promise to meet the full financial need of all their students.
Across the country, universities are facing the same stark dilemma as Smith. If they continue to put more money into financial aid, they have to take it from somewhere else. At what point are they cutting too deeply, compromising the education they have to offer?
''I question the purpose of giving out financial aid if the product isn't the same," said Smith junior Anne Halsey, who felt the dining hall consolidation took away something that made Smith special. ''Why not go to a cheaper state school?"
The value of grants from universities nationwide to their students doubled over the past decade, significantly outpacing the rise in tuition, according to the College Board. A big part of that growth comes from the increasingly popular practice of luring top students with merit scholarships, which are given without regard to need. But most institutional aid still goes to lower- and middle-income students who cannot afford a school's costs. The declining value of federal financial aid, particularly the Pell Grant for low-income students, has only put more pressure on colleges' aid budgets.
''There's no more important issue for American higher education to face in the next decade than this issue of balancing access and quality," said Brian C. Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, a high-ranking liberal arts school in Minnesota. ''We can't become a system only for the privileged, but we also can't become a system where the quality degrades."
Rosenberg recently wrote to students and faculty that financial aid was eating up Macalester's budget to the point that quality has suffered; among the consequences, he said, the school's student-to-faculty ratio has slipped from 10 to 1 to 11 to 1.
He proposed that the school give up its need blind policy of admitting all students without regard to ability to pay, but continue to meet the full need of all admitted students. The trustees are expected to decide in the next few months.
College leaders generally don't like to talk about those kinds of trade-offs, but universities large and small, public and private, are either grappling with the problem or avoiding it at their peril, according to higher education specialists.
''When I look at all private colleges' budgets, I see this huge increase in institutional aid over the past decade," said Robert C. Dickeson, senior vice president for policy of the Lumina Foundation for Education, who was referring to aid given based on both need and merit. ''It means that students run the risk of being shortchanged, and yet the price is still increasing."
At Smith last year, administrators projected a deficit of $7 million by the 2006-07 academic year, with deficits expected to rise 10 percent each year thereafter. Health insurance costs have ballooned, and Smith's endowment suffered during the economic downturn in 2002 and 2003, meaning there was less income for the college to spend. (The endowment has rebounded to more than $900 million, but the temporary losses still affect the operating budget because of the way the annual endowment payout is calculated.)
Meanwhile, the financial aid budget skyrocketed; it doubled over eight years, to about $40 million this year. Because more aid means there is less net revenue from tuition and fees, the portion of Smith's overall budget covered by tuition and fees dropped over a decade from nearly 50 percent to 41 percent.
Financial aid may have grown in part thanks to stepped-up efforts to recruit in low-income, urban areas, and in part because families suffered in the bad economy and were less able to afford what Smith charges. Tuition and fees rose about 5 percent or 6 percent in each of the last few years, and this year Smith cost full-paying students nearly $39,000, with room and board.
More generally, Smith is a victim of its own generosity. It enrolls a higher percentage of low-income students than most other liberal-arts schools. It has special programs to bring in transfers from community college and older students -- almost all of them on financial aid. Sixty-two percent of students are currently on aid, usually a mix of grants, loans, and an on-campus job, and the average grant to first-year students is more than $20,000. Ninety-seven percent of the aid given at Smith is based on financial need, said college officials.
Smith decided last year to cut $12.7 million out of its $147 million budget, not only to eliminate the deficit but to allow for things such as faculty raises and needed renovations. Smith president Carol T. Christ felt the aid budget should be essentially off-limits, although there is a plan to slow its growth and make slightly bigger loans a part of students' financial aid packages.
When thinking about the budget, ''you have to start with the very large question of what are the most important priorities for the institution," she said in an interview. ''For me, they are academic excellence and access and affordability."
The cuts included trimming the 295-person faculty by about 25 positions by offering early retirements and not filling vacant positions. This will return the student-to-faculty ratio from 9 to 1 to 10 to 1. Smith also cut 25 staff jobs, mostly through layoffs.
Those decisions, though painful, have not proved that controversial on campus. What has caused an uproar is the dining changes.
Social life at Smith has always revolved around its 40 or so cozy residential houses, which range in size from 18 to 90 residents. Until this year, most students had a dining hall in their house, though smaller houses were often assigned to a nearby dining room, where they usually had specific tables set aside.
Smith's 26 dining halls were consolidated into 22 this year, and next year there will be 18. Now students can eat anywhere, and some of the dining rooms have a niche -- one serves Asian food and another is vegetarian.
Though the dining hall savings amount to just $800,000 a year, Christ said it would have been unwise to cut so much from other parts of the budget and leave dining alone. In fact, she declined to characterize the dining changes as a loss, arguing that they allowed the school to offer more menu variety and longer hours -- things students wanted.
But most students interviewed remained extremely upset about the consolidation even after living with it for a semester. And alumnae are up-in-arms. Seven-hundred have signed a petition against the decision and what they say was a lack of consultation, while a third of those who attended commencement last May wore orange arm bands in protest.
While some students and alumnae acknowledge that it may sound as if they're spoiled, most of them view the tradition of eating with their housemates as central to the Smith experience, and it's an attribute the college has long touted in recruiting applicants.
The small, uncrowded dining halls provided supportive space for shy young women, they say, and even forced students to get to know women of different races and political beliefs. It's where students announced group activities and took notice if classmates didn't show up for meals.
''Smith markets itself on offering the house atmosphere," which includes the dining halls, said senior Victoria Patrick, the president of Wilder House. ''Those of us who came here for that feel a little betrayed."
At a school where friendships tend to form by house more than by class year, Wilder's upperclass students don't know the names of their house's first-years. They say people aren't showing up as much for house events.
But some students say intimate dining rooms are not as important as making Smith affordable to all. Sophomore Margaret MacRae said she wouldn't be at Smith if it weren't for the substantial financial aid she receives. ''If it's my ability to go to college versus my ability to eat scrambled eggs in the morning in my PJs and slippers in my dining room, I'm going to choose my ability to go to college," she said.
Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at email@example.com.