Srivastava: Financial aid should be expanded to higher income brackets

Heena Srivastava , Daily Columnist

In 2016, Money ranked Northwestern among the richest colleges in the nation, and by the end of the 2017 fiscal year, NU had an endowment of $10.5 billion. But while the University is ranked among the richest in the nation, it remains excluded from the top 28 in providing need-based financial aid. And though NU has made strides to improve accessibility, the University falls behind in properly supporting middle-class students.

Over the last few years, NU has taken several initiatives to expand financial aid opportunities for undergraduate students. In 2016, University President Morton Schapiro and then-Provost Daniel Linzer announced all-grant financial aid packages, greater scholarships for undocumented students and increased aid for international students.

Between 2011 and 2016, Northwestern increased financial aid opportunities to students by 55 percent. The University’s “20 by 2020” campaign, originating from an Associated Student Government initiative, aims to have 20 percent of the incoming freshman class in 2020 be made up of Pell Grant recipients. The percentage of Pell Grant recipients hit 19 in the class of 2021.

Compared to schools of similar endowment but higher ranking for need-based financial opportunity, Northwestern is not far off. In fact, as of 2017, Princeton University expanded its financial aid budget to $161.2 million (with approximately 60 percent of its students receiving financial aid), while NU’s was expanded to $174 million.

Although the University has tangibly expanded financial aid opportunities for undergraduate students and even competed with other highly-ranked schools for need-based aid, NU is overlooking a key demographic. The University still struggles to aid middle-class students with extenuating circumstances.

Schools ranked highly for need-based aid expand the brackets to offer financial support to a greater population, while NU still limits middle-class students. In 2014, The New York Times compared tuition from different institutions, and found NU requested more tuition from middle-class families compared to other schools. According to the article, for families in the $75,000 to $110,000 income bracket, Harvard only requested $12,000 over a year, while Northwestern wanted more than twice as much.

College tuition has drastically risen in recent decades. Average household income for the middle class, however, has not to the same degree. NU does not account for this trend when giving financial aid.

Weinberg freshman Nicole Skakun explained her negative experience acquiring aid. To convince Northwestern she needed aid, Skakun resorted to extreme measures. She made an Excel spreadsheet that listed all recurring and variable expenses, such as groceries, gas, entertainment and eating out. “If (my family) included those,” she said, “we would be running a negative balance and we would be heavily in debt.” To receive aid, she said she provided an ultimatum for the University: If it did not reevaluate the spreadsheet and offer her financial aid beyond loans, she would not attend. For students like Skakun, who can technically afford NU on paper, aid should consider all their needs.

Northwestern must consider extenuating circumstances that require financial assistance, such as a family with multiple children in college. For example, while McCormick senior Rushi Shah comes from a middle-class family, high tuition made it strenuous for his family to put him and his younger brother through college. When Shah received generous financial aid from NU, helping his entire family, they anticipated his brother would receive the same. However, when his brother received less than expected, the family was financially strained and his brother could not attend. In such cases, the University is responsible for catering to unique circumstances.

If NU hopes to achieve inclusivity, it must reevaluate its aid policy to better assist middle-class students. Aid can then be offered to a greater demographic.

Heena Srivastava is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.