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Financial Aid

Chances are I am not the only college president being asked these days why my institution is not following Sewanee's lead and reducing tuition by 10 percent—or more.

Several years ago, before the recession, I was being asked a different question about my institution, Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.: Why are we still including loans in student financial aid packages when a number of peer colleges have eliminated them?

And I imagine some of my presidential colleagues have been asked about Hamilton's decision last March to adopt a need-blind admission policy.

The call for increased transparency in the college pricing and financial aid arenas is coming from many directions and is ringing louder and more clearly than ever. Institutional customers, students and families who have for some time been expecting more information, now want it more quickly and in terms they can understand easily and compare consistently across institutions.

There are scholarships available for just about anything these days. In addition to endowed scholarships for students with names such as Zolp, Scarpinato, Gatling, Baxendale, Hudson, Thayer, Downer, Bright, and Van Valkenburg, many organizations offer awards for specific talents or interests.

Given the multiple goals and multiple players involved in developing and managing endowed scholarship funds, there are lots of opportunities for communication gaps, poor service, and less than optimal use of the funds. In an ideal world, endowed funds and annual gifts given for scholarship support would be used to take the place of unfunded aid in the offers made to students, freeing unfunded (and therefore unrestricted) resources for other purposes. However, many institutions are not able to achieve this efficient outcome for a number of reasons.

This morning I was re-reading this issue's Money Matters column on endowed scholarships. In discussing the sometimes restrictive criteria these awards carry, Kathy Kurz illustrates one of her favorite examples. The award "required potential candidates to submit an essay about what their Italian heritage meant to them," Kurz writes. "Winners of this award then had to attend a ball in their honor, and the cost of a gown or tuxedo rental was more than the value of the scholarship!"

It took one determined program director, two tries, three years, and much collective brainpower—but at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, today's interior architecture program students can earn a bachelor degree in three years rather than four.

When competing for top students, many colleges are finding that offering merit awards or generous need-based packages is no longer enough to win the day. Academically successful students typically have multiple offers from which to choose. So, all things being equal when it comes to financial aid, how does a college compete for the best and the brightest? Here are four ideas for sweetening the offer to the student that everybody wants—because it's not just about money anymore.

The recession has certainly forced everyone to do more with less, but financial aid administrators are dealing with a new level of this challenge. As with all campus offices, financial aid office resources and funding are being frozen or cut due to tight campus budgets. In addition, financial aid offices are serving more students and families than ever before and administering record amounts of financial aid.

Talking about affordability can be a scary conversation for a recruiter. That is part of the reason more and more institutions have moved to transparent merit policies and other "entitlements" with clear eligibility criteria. But even if recruiters have these tools at their disposal, they still need to be able to talk with confidence about need-based aid and that is where it can get complicated.