Miami university in Ohio and Michigan State University have recently joined a growing number of higher education institutions that are making efforts to expand the financial aid that's available to low-income students-guaranteeing to cover certain costs of attendance for these students.
The Miami Access Initiative fully covers tuition and fees for Ohio students from families making less than $35,000 a year.
MSU's Spartan Advantage provides enough grant and work study aid to cover the average cost of tuition, fees, room and board, and books for students from families with an annual income at or below the federal poverty level ($20,000 in 2006).
Similar programs have been instituted in Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, Nebraska, North Carolina, and elsewhere. The rapid spread of these programs in the past few years is a testament to their popularity and the benefits that a commitment to need-based financial aid can provide.
Of course, students who need aid reap the benefits of programs like these. But institutions and states can also reap rewards from the programs.
Richard Shipman, director of Financial Aid at MSU, says that Spartan Advantage highlights the institution's mission of serving the students and citizens of Michigan. "Michigan State University has a 150-year tradition as the nation's first land-grant institution of providing access and affordability for the sons and daughters of our state," he notes.
These programs also promote a more diverse campus population, says Chuck Knepfle, assistant provost and director of Student Financial Assistance at Miami University.
"Diversity is valued at Miami University, and we consider socio-economic diversity a critical part of that. A student population that varies in race, citizenship, gender, and socio-economic status provides a learning environment that is better for everyone who attends," he says.
Institutional data may well be affected in positive ways, as well. "Students will feel less focused on financial issues as they work toward academic goals," Shipman says. "It may improve the persistence and ultimate graduation rates for this at-risk population."
The programs benefit states by helping create a well-trained, educated workforce. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds will have the chance to maximize their potential. In other words, Knepfle says, "Our state benefits because [IHEs] are seen as providing the top academic programs to all citizens of Ohio."
One reason The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill instituted its Carolina Covenant, which gives low-income students the opportunity to graduate without student loan debt, was to accommodate growth of the state's low-income student population, according to Dan Thornton, associate director of scholarships and financial aid.
"What schools do when they introduce programs such as the Miami Access Initiative is open up the concept of a college education to a lot of students who didn't even think it would be possible," Knepfle says. "My hope is that these students will begin to understand that college is a real possibility for them."
Miami University was fortunate to receive a $10 million gift from Lois Klawon, a 1939 Miami alumna who requested that the proceeds be used for need-based financial aid. Other institutions may have to be more creative in order to institute this type of program.
UNC's program, for example, is expected to cost $2.2 million a year when it is fully implemented in the 2007-2008 academic year. This provides the Carolina Covenant to students from families making twice the $20,000 poverty level standard. The school relies on a mix of federal (40 percent), state (15 percent), and institutional/private resources (45 percent) to cover the costs of the promise. Thornton says that funding is expected to remain roughly in these proportions.
Knepfle encourages schools to look at what this type of program might cost. He says institutions may be surprised by what they find. "From what I've learned from talking to other financial aid directors who have created programs like this, it is often less expensive than you might think," he explains. "The fact is that many students who fit these sorts of programs already qualify for significant state and federal grant dollars, so the universities simply need to give a little more to meet the requirements of the program."
In addition, many programs have been widely supported by the community. Since the covenant was announced, UNC has received more than $4 million in largely unsolicited gifts, according to Thornton.
He recommends an examination of existing institutional aid programs to see if they can be used to provide a more comprehensive guarantee to low-income students. For example, the Carolina Covenant is not a specific financial aid program, but a pledge to meet the financial needs of low-income students by carefully coordinating grants, scholarships, and work study.
While funding is a major consideration in launching these programs, there are other factors an institution must consider as well.
"It takes a bit of research to see if this type of program will be successful at your institution, because each institution is unique," Thornton cautions.
Consider the demographic and economic characteristics of the student population to determine if a program is feasible, how much aid can be guaranteed, and how effective the program will be. For example, it would likely be easier for highly selective schools to institute this type of program because they generally have higher tuition revenue and a smaller low-income student population.
Knepfle recommends working out all the details before announcing the program. MU received calls from students interested in the program hours after it was announced. "It was very helpful to have the details about eligibility, application process, and deadlines worked out in advance," he says.
Knepfle also urges institutions to make sure students benefiting from these programs have adequate advising, mentoring, and guidance once they arrive on campus, especially those whose parents may not have attended college.
Once it has been determined that an institution can and should expand its commitment to needy students, the new program must be marketed. "You have to think about how you are going to sell the program to the public, legislators, and higher education leaders," Thornton says. "The message needs to be simple."
Thornton also suggests getting faculty involved. "It is important to assess if faculty will be enthusiastic about the program because they are important to promoting it," he says.
At UNC, more than 90 faculty and staff members have expressed an interest in actively supporting the aid promise by serving in one of the myriad roles that are important to the program's success. Many employees were motivated to serve in these roles by personal experiences of overcoming obstacles similar to the ones that hinder today's students.
Finally, learn from other institutional leaders who have implemented these types of programs. Knepfle reflects, "One thing I have noticed about others in my profession is that we are willing to share good ideas, especially ideas which provide college opportunities to students with financial need."
Haley Chitty is assistant director of Communications for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA).