Explained: Financial aid recipients excluded from 10 percent tuition discount


The Office of Financial Aid, 1801 Hinman Ave. The University opted to raise tuition for the 2020-21 academic year while simultaneously instituting a 10 percent tuition discount.

Catherine Buchaniec, Creative Director

In a Friday email, University President Morton Schapiro announced a 10 percent discount on fall tuition for some students due to the economic impact of recent changes to fall plans. In the days following the announcement, the reduction has received criticism due to the policy’s limited applicability.  

The tuition discount, which will only apply to Fall Quarter tuition at this time, was announced “as a result of the evolving nature of that decision as well as its economic impact.” While students who will pay full tuition this year can expect to see the policy’s impacts in their fall quarter bill, undergraduates receiving any amount of financial aid will not benefit from the discount. 

Although all undergraduates are impacted by the University’s partial shift to online learning, those who receive need-based financial aid will not see any change to their Expected Family Contribution. Instead, their “aid will be reduced commensurate to tuition,” leaving financial aid recipients to pay the same bill they would have incurred under normal circumstances. 

About 51 percent of undergraduates receive financial aid, according to the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid, meaning a slight majority of students will not receive the 10 percent discount. 

At a Tuesday webinar hosted by NU administrators, Phil Asbury, the director of undergraduate financial aid, elaborated on the policy to not change EFCs.

“Unfortunately, we have no authority to change that,” Asbury said. “We don’t have a lot of options there.”

Peer institutions

After receiving Schapiro’s email, Oliver Chen, an incoming Bienen and Weinberg dual degree freshman, said he felt shocked by the tuition discount’s limitations. As a financial aid recipient, he is ineligible for the tuition reduction.

At first, Chen emailed the Financial Aid office, inquiring about the policy’s limitations. In an email obtained by The Daily, the office replied to Chen’s questions, citing issues with the University’s participation in federal financial aid programs.

According to the office, even if tuition is reduced, a student’s EFC must remain the same.  Decreasing EFCs would result in a skewed aid-to-EFC ratio where students receive more aid than deemed necessary by the University, creating “over-awards,”  which would jeopardize the University’s government financial aid. 

A student’s EFC is an estimate of the total amount a student’s family is expected to contribute toward the student’s annual college expenses, including tuition. At Northwestern, a student’s expected family contribution is calculated by the Financial Aid office using the FAFSA, College Board CSS Profile and other documents.

Unlike NU, some universities that opted for a tuition reduction did so without excluding financial aid recipients. For example, Williams College, where Schapiro served as president for nine years before coming to NU in 2009, announced a 15 percent reduction in tuition for the entire academic year in June. 

Similarly, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was able to circumvent the “over-award” issue by giving every undergraduate a one-time tuition grant of $5,000. Other universities like Georgetown waived expected summer work contributions, lowering students’ EFCs, and allowed all students to receive a credit of up to $2,900. 

Chen emailed these findings to Schapiro. However, instead of addressing the actions taken by the peer institutions cited by Chen, Schapiro referred Chen to a clarifying email sent to students Tuesday morning, where he reiterated the University’s commitment to maintaining EFCs.

“If tuition goes up, the amount a family is asked to pay does not rise,” Schapiro wrote. “If tuition goes down, the amount the family pays does not go down.”

Schapiro added that if a family’s circumstances change and their need increases, the student can re-file a financial aid application to lower the amount the family is expected to pay. Schapiro also highlighted the University’s emergency aid initiatives. 

However, Chen said the University should “do a better job of communicating” when it comes to talking about the relationship between “over-awarding” and the tuition discount. 

Going forward

Medill sophomore Alex Harrison is also a financial aid recipient ineligible for the tuition discount. After receiving the Friday email to students, Harrison started organizing. 

Working with a group of students, Harrison assisted in writing a petition asking for an increased tuition discount that is available to all students, not just those paying full tuition, as well as a return to 2019-20 tuition levels. Before the most recent announcement, the University increased tuition by 3.5 percent for the 2020-21 academic year.

The petition launched Tuesday afternoon and has accumulated the signatures of 28 undergraduates, 11 graduate students and two alumni as of Tuesday night.

“Should the university refuse to engage with this petition and its demands, we will call a tuition strike beginning Thursday, Oct. 1,” the petition states. “Tuition payments will be withheld en masse until Northwestern engages with the needs of its community in good faith.”

Harrison said he and the other organizers were inspired by a tuition strike held by students at the University of Chicago in the spring.

“The idea of a petition came pretty quickly to us,” Harrison said. “While (UChicago) didn’t win all of their demands, they did successfully get UChicago to institute a tuition freeze.”

Instituting a tuition freeze met one of the five demands of student group UChicago for Fair Tuition, which held a two-week tuition strike that included over 200 students. Other demands included a 50 percent reduction in tuition costs as well as the waiving of advanced residency costs for doctoral students.

When asked whether or not the tuition discount policy is final, University spokesperson Jon Yates said “the tuition discount is as outlined in our Friday communication to students.” 

However, Daniel Rodriguez, the Associated Student Government’s executive officer of justice and inclusion, said he and other executive members of ASG intend to meet with the University in the coming weeks to communicate student concerns. 

“What ASG has been trying to do is to compile a list of questions to follow up with admin on,” Rodriguez said. “In the coming weeks, ASG is hoping to use some of our already established networks.” 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @caty_buchaniec

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