Northwestern steps up financial aid for area kids

Lark Turner

At the end of last winter, Joshua Williams, Communication ’10, approached University President Morton Schapiro with an idea about making Northwestern less of an “ivory tower” for the communities surrounding it. Williams said he asked Schapiro to establish a task force that would help increase diversity at NU. It was an idea that a student and member of NUambassadors Bradley Akubuiro had suggested to him. In response, Schapiro, who told The Daily last spring that diversity through local enrollment was an issue of particular importance to him, assembled a taskforce co-chaired with SESP Dean Penelope Peterson that also included board of trustee members, faculty and students.

By June the taskforce had made its final recommendation: a scholarship initiative called Good Neighbor, Great University. The program, formally announced last month, will take effect next year.

The complex name hides a simple program, which will meet all of the demonstrated need of selected Chicago- and Evanston-area students without loan or work study obligations. About 100 students in the class of 2015 will receive the approximately $3 million in additional aid allocated to the program, said Michael Mills, associate provost for University enrollment.

Effectively, for some students, this will cover the full cost of tuition, he said.

The move to eliminate more of the self-help portions of financial aid packages, such as loans and work study, is a step toward better competing with what NU’s peer schools are offering their most financially-disadvantaged applicants.

Mills said his role on the taskforce was to “pore over the data” and find out how admitted students perceive NU. Analyzing NU’s yield rate, he found the “overwhelming” number of students who were accepted and chose not to attend had received better aid offers.

In six Spring Quarter meetings, the taskforce discussed why many Chicago and Evanston students simply don’t consider attending NU an option and how to attract those students to apply and enroll, Peterson said.

Though many students graduating from Chicago and Evanston schools are academically capable of attending NU, Peterson said research shows many applicants will dismiss costly, highly selective schools like NU in favor of other options.

Akubuiro faced this same issue as an NUambassador.

“We’ll see students going to state schools, and they have the opportunity to come here and get a really great education, and a lot of them pass it up because they don’t see it as a possibility,” Akubuiro, a Medill senior, said. “We have students who see Northwestern as an ivory tower sitting on a lake over the city but not accessible to the students in the city.”

Once the students arrive on campus, the Good Neighbor, Great University scholarships will help cover more costs, including room, board and books.

In addition to these expenses, NU may have to increase other programming to support the students, Peterson said. Improving NU’s advising across schools and instituting a school-run peer advising program will help address students’ academic and social needs better, Peterson said.

Schapiro told The Daily the taskforce was considering how to include the students in the student body, asking “‘Are we ready for them? What are we going to do?'” One of the suggestions the taskforce made was to institute SESP-style advising across schools, he said in May.

Many of Northwestern’s peer schools, including Stanford University, Duke University and Brown University, have programs aimed at phasing out loans from financial aid packages. In 2007, Harvard University led the charge when it announced a new financial aid program providing aid based on a family’s income, with families earning less than $60,000 a year required to pay nothing. Students are not required to take out loans as part of the financial aid, according to its aid website.

Harvard’s program, while comprehensive, is very expensive. It will cost the university an estimated $158 million this year in comparison to next year’s projected $93 million budget for NU students, including Good Neighbor, Great University.

With a board of trustees active in Chicago and a new president’s desire to heal a decades-old souring of town-gown relations, Peterson and Mills both said it made sense to start locally.

“(Schapiro) feels that Chicago is a great resource for the University and he wants the University to be a great resource for Chicago,” Peterson said. “The ‘Good Neighbor’ part was his vision.”

In addition to improving NU’s image in the community and providing assistance to local students, the scholarships should encourage talented local students needing significant aid to choose NU.

And most of the students and administrators involved in the task force say their ultimate goal and hope is to expand the program.

“It’s only a first step,” Akubuiro said. “We want to see this program being expanded across the U.S. so we can have a program that can really increase our diversity numbers.”

Williams, who as a Chicago native said he could have benefited from the program had it been an option when he was a student, said he hopes the program’s reach will extend beyond the city in the future.

For now, he said he was happy to see the program “start at home first.”

“It’s great that it’s there for those individuals,” Williams said, “even though it wasn’t there for me.”

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