Financial Aid For the Neediest Students

March 4, 2004

by Howard and Matthew Greene

Mention the word "barbell" and the image that springs to mind is that of a weightlifter's tool: two heavy balls attached by a long thin bar. In the college world, this term is used to describe the socio-economic composition of their student bodies. The barbell is heavily weighted on one end by students whose families can afford comfortably to pay the full cost of a college education from their annual income and savings, and on the other end by students who can afford to pay only a small portion of the cost of their education. The bar between the two bells represents the majority of students whose families are in a middle-income bracket. They can pay a sizable portion of college costs but need scholarships and loans to supplement their contribution.

In recent years there has been a dramatic climb in the amount of financial aid dedicated to middle income students to help them bridge the gap between their contribution and tuition costs. Merit awards, which are non-need based have also increased in order to attract outstanding students from middle and upper income families to their respective colleges. As funding from the Federal government has failed to keep pace with the annual increases in tuition at both public and private universities, low income families find that a college education less available to their children. College tuition represents too heavy a portion of their annual income, and the amount of educational loans these families have to secure is too heavy a burden to ask their children to shoulder. Consequently, the equilibrium of the college barbell is shifting unsteadily towards middle and upper income families. As a result, fewer students who need a significant amount of financial aid are applying to college in recent years. In attempt to remedy this predicament, a growing number of universities are dedicating more of their own scholarship funds to low income candidates. Here are some examples of major universities that are addressing the growing disparity between the financial haves- and have-nots. Harvard University recently announced that it will no longer require any financial contribution towards tuition from families that earn less than $40,000 annually and will reduce the loan amount expected of students. The University will also lower the amount of contribution required of families whose incomes fall between $40,000 and $60,000. Princeton set a new standard in student support in recent years by eliminating entirely the loan portion from its financial aid package. MIT has increased its financial grants to students by $3,100, mostly by reducing the self-help portion students are required to contribute. Dartmouth has added $1.6 million to its scholarship fund in order to reduce the loan and student contribution portions of aid packages by about $1,500. Yale has committed an additional $7.5 million to its financial aid program in order to lower the amount families are expected to pay by an average of $2,000. This will lower the level of loans and expected contributions from summer earnings by students on financial aid. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill became the first public university to commit to meeting the full financial need of students from families whose incomes fall below one hundred and fifty percent of the poverty level, which is about $28,000 per year for a family of four. Those students who qualify will need to work ten to twelve hours per week on campus (almost all colleges' financial aid packages include a federally subsidized work study component), but will accumulate no debt by having to take out loans to finance their education.

Given the policy of all colleges and universities of excellence to keep their doors open to deserving students from all socio-economic backgrounds, you can expect to learn of increasing financial aid programs for lower income families. The push is on to create a healthier balance on the educational barbell, so no family should surrender the dream of their children realizing a college education.