Attracting Students Of All Incomes

Elizabeth Campbell

By Elizabeth CampbellThe Daily Northwestern

This Spring Break, many Northwestern students will recover from the stress of finals by relaxing at the beach, going on cruises or taking road trips to visit friends. But Weinberg junior Kristi St. Charles plans to fill out the five different applications for the student loans she takes out every year to pay her NU tuition.

St. Charles said she is lucky. The first-generation college student qualifies for financial aid that adds up to about $40,000 a year. The estimated $6,000 a year of her tuition not covered by grants, scholarships or work study, considered St. Charles’ “parental contribution,” is paid not by her parents, but by St. Charles herself.

At a school with a tuition, room and board price of $43,674 a year – up 30 percent from $33,615 in 2001 – students like St. Charles are rare. Economic diversity is a serious challenge facing college admissions offices, said Michael Mills, associate provost for university enrollment. And today, both the federal government and highly selective colleges like NU are trying to combat the problem through initiatives such as large aid packages to low-income students.

“It’s so clear that (low-income) students are underrepresented on our campuses,” Mills said.

Over the last five years, the cost of attending a four-year private university – including tuition, fees, and room and board – has gone up 27 percent from $23,856 in 2001 to $30,367 in 2006. Costs at four-year public schools have increased 42 percent from $9,032 to $12,796, according to the College Board.

“People still want to go to college. They see there’s a very high rate of return,” said Sandy Baum, a senior policy analyst at the College Board and professor of economics at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “(But) we do see enrollment rising more rapidly in low-priced private colleges than in high-priced private colleges.”

St. Charles considers herself a minority at NU, a campus where 62 percent of students from this year’s entering class come from families with estimated annual incomes of $100,000 or more. When her friends come back to school in the fall with extra spending cash from summer jobs, St. Charles usually has just paid her fall tuition bill with money she made working 40 to 50 hours a week at a law firm near her Milwaukee home.

“There are times when I feel I can’t relate to some of my friends,” St. Charles said. “But we usually just don’t talk about money or any of that.”

Big tabs, no worries

Heading out to local bars like 1800 Club, 1800 Sherman Ave., or the Mark 2 Lounge, 7436 1/2 N. Western Ave., is a typical Thursday activity for St. Charles. But the amount of money some of her friends spend makes her realize how atypical her situation is.

“People just open up tabs when we go out and don’t really worry,” St. Charles said. “They’ll spend like $200 and it’ll go on their parents’ credit card without giving it a second thought.”

Low-income students face ongoing issues of assimilation on a campus like NU’s, Mills said. For many students, money worries simply aren’t an issue.

“We are aware we have a very affluent student population in general,” Mills said.

Communication junior Elizabeth Drake knows she has to spend more carefully than some of her friends. Drake, who is pursuing her dream to be an actress, will have more than $125,000 in student loans to pay back when she graduates. The first bill from her loan company will come six months after graduation.

Drake worked at Norris University Center through work study for about 12 hours a week during her freshman year and babysat about 20 hours a week during her sophomore year. Last summer, Drake enrolled in three courses while working more than 40 hours a week as a waitress at Davis Street Fishmarket in Evanston, but she had to drop classes because they were too expensive, she said.

She also describes herself as “the best bargain shopper known to man.” Recently she found a pair of Manolo Blahnik leather boots for $40 at a vintage store.

“I never thought I would touch that brand in real life,” Drake said.

Despite her more frugal lifestyle, Drake said she has never felt that NU is out of her league.

“I never feel behind my friends (or) out of place,” Drake said. “They show great respect for me.”

Trying to close the gap

NU and similar institutions are trying to allow more students like St. Charles and Drake to attend.

Universities like Harvard and Stanford have the financial means to offer aid on a larger scale than NU, said University President Henry Bienen.

NU always has followed a need-blind admissions policy, but in some cases, this hasn’t been enough, Bienen said. Some high-achieving, low-income students choose other schools where their financial assistance would be greater.

So starting with the class of 2010, NU began a pilot program to reach out to low-income students. The university offered no-loan financial aid packages to 24 low-income high school seniors. The seven who accepted the offer receive average financial aid packages of $35,000 to $40,000 a year from NU institutional grant money, Mills said.

This year, NU hopes to double the impact of the program and offer 50 low-income students no-loan financial aid options with the help of an $8 million donation from the Ryan family, Mills said. Patrick Ryan, chairman of NU’s Board of Trustees, and his wife Shirley Welsh-Ryan are NU alumni.

NU is among several schools nationwide that are turning their focus toward economic diversity. Mills, who serves on an advisory board for the U.S. News & World Report survey of colleges, said the survey eventually may incorporate the enrollment of low-income students into the ranking system.

Baum said these efforts are a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done at the government level to effect change.

“Institutions should do as much as they can,” Baum said. “But federal and state governments clearly have to be very active in terms of providing generous need-based grants to low-income students.”

Earlier this month, President Bush announced a plan to raise the amount of federal financial assistance for college students. Under the proposed budget, annual federal Pell grants would increase 33 percent over the next five years from the current maximum grant of $4,050 to $5,400 in 2012.

There are some signs of progress at NU. In 2006, about 28 percent of freshmen cited financial assistance as a “very important” reason for deciding to attend.

Bienen said NU will expand funding for no-loan packages up to a point, but the university can offer only so many without eroding the money allotted for need-based financial aid.

“It’s really important to preserve need-based financial aid as the overriding policy for Northwestern,” Bienen said. “If we can do some things on the no-loan side with the Ryan gift and other monies that we’re trying to raise, we’ll do something.”

Unfinished work

More needs to be done to close the financial gap. In 2006, about 9 percent of freshmen surveyed said they had major concerns about their ability to pay NU’s tuition, the highest percentage of students since 2002.

Mills said many low-income students assume they won’t be able to attend schools above a certain price. Last month, representatives from the admissions office gave a brief presentation on financial aid to guidance counselors from Chicago public high schools. Students who come out of these schools tend to have high need, but many counselors did not know that NU financial grants can provide more than just tuition, Mills said.

The College Board released the names of low-income students who took the PSAT to a select group of pilot universities, including NU, to allow schools to recruit them directly for the fall 2008 entering class.

In November 2006, NU, sent letters for the first time directly to some of the parents of low-income high school seniors this year to inform the
m of financial aid offerings.

“How do you convince people whose annual incomes are less than one year’s amount of dollars at Northwestern that they are precisely the people who tend to benefit the most from the type of aid we have?” Mills said.

St. Charles said she started looking into financing her college education during her freshman year of high school. Going to college and taking out student loans was just something she always assumed she would do.

“I was always working hard,” St. Charles said. “I knew if I got good grades, I could get a scholarship and go to school.”

St. Charles said that while NU is not economically diverse, the admissions office is more than willing to help low-income students like herself.

Drake receives some scholarship money that she won’t have to pay back, but her loans will follow her long after she graduates. She said the burden is worth it.

“If I’m lucky enough to have landed a major motion picture by 28 and pay them off in full – wonderful,” she said. “But if not, and I’m 65 and paying my last bill of tuition – who cares? It’s the same wonderful experience.”

Reach Elizabeth Campbell at [email protected]