Demand for financial aid at NU stable despite poor economy

Dalia Naamani-Goldman

Weinberg sophomore Mike Wong never applied for financial aid in the past. But with the majority of his college savings invested in mutual funds, he was forced to seek assistance from Northwestern this year due to the declining stock market.

On Saturday, Wong completed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid form and said he hopes to receive any funds NU can offer.

“I wasn’t expecting to be on financial aid,” Wong said. “But I probably lost a year of tuition .”

Financial reports from universities across the country are showing that many students are in the same predicament as Wong. The economic downturn, coupled with the rising cost of education, has caused many of NU’s peer institutions to substantially raise their financial aid budgets to meet increased student need.

But NU isn’t following the national trend and has not seen a large increase in requests for more or increased financial aid packages for next year, said Rebecca Dixon, associate provost for university enrollment.

“We did not see some spurt in the need for financial aid,” Dixon said. “Some students came in for more (money), but nothing was unusual.”

When NU set its budget for the 2003-04 fiscal year in February, financial officials did not significantly raise financial aid budgetary allocations, even though they were unsure how many more students would apply for assistance this year, said Eugene Sunshine, senior vice president for business and finance. Sunshine said judging a possible increase in financial aid requests can be a “guessing game” each year.

Of NU’s undergraduate population of about 7,700 students, about 45 percent receive some type of university financial aid — a combination of grants, work-study positions and student loans — according to Dixon. That figure has remained fairly stable throughout the past few years, despite current economic conditions.

NU will not finalize its financial aid allocations for incoming freshman until May, but Dixon said preliminary statistics show this year’s requests won’t significantly differ from the past. The university raised its grant budget to about $52 million for next year, Dixon said. The 4.78 percent increase corresponds with both NU’s tuition increase and inflation. But that change is small compared to other schools nationwide.

Administrators at Tufts University in Massachusetts recently raised the school’s financial aid budget by 12.8 percent to cover increased student need.

“The current year has pushed the limits of our budget and rainy-day funds,” said Patricia Reilly, Tufts’ director of financial aid. “Last year the jump was a surprise. We’re assuming that if it was bad last year, it’s not going to be better this year.”

Reilly said some of Tufts’ scholarship limitations come from decreased state funding. Less money for state scholarships are available in Massachusetts than in Illinois due to the state’s budget crisis, she said.

Officials with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators said figures illustrating the increased need for financial aid packages and the actual amount of money requested are not available. Still, according to the association’s statistics, about 12 million students completed financial aid applications in 2002-03, which is up from 9.6 million applications four years ago.

But Dixon attributes the stability of financial aid requests at NU to the tailored packages each student receives at the start of freshman year. In addition to reviewing the FAFSA form, NU’s financial aid office requires a more in-depth application that looks at a student’s “total economic picture, not just income,” Dixon said.

“I think most of our students feel they’re getting a fair share and not some run up,” she said.

NU’s financial aid office doesn’t use all of its yearly budgetary allocation, Dixon said. Helped by these savings, NU has been able to handle most of the increased financial aid requests in the past, although Dixon said she doesn’t know how the university would handle an exceptionally large increase in need.

“I don’t know what we would do if that happens,” she said, noting that increased student loans are always an option.

Although some officials in higher education are focusing heavily on the financial aid issue, others said the current problems have only been publicized because of the media’s attention to economic concerns.

Shawn Monk, assistant director of information, technology and training at the University of Dayton, calls the financial aid process the “dark side of higher education.”

“We tend to do this stuff every year,” he said. “Some years (increased financial aid requests) get more attention than other years. It’s kind of old hat to us.”