How financial aid reinforces our values

Dean Nondorf outlines progress, potential of UChicago’s financial aid offerings.

By James G. Nondorf

This is the time of year when we calculate statistics that tell us something about next fall’s incoming College first-years. By almost any measure, the Class of 2017 is a great class — high achieving, with wide and interesting experiences, geographically and ethnically diverse.

But here is one of the less-heralded numbers and, I think, one of the most telling: Approximately 60 percent of the Class of 2017 has been offered scholarship or need-based grant awards, and we estimate the average need-based financial aid award totals roughly $39,631.

That is a powerful statement of the University’s values. In a community devoted to free inquiry in which ideas are heard and tested on their merit, we cannot let finances be a bar to entry. On the contrary, the University needs the talent, breadth of experience, and viewpoints of all of our best applicants. So in the College, we do not consider a family’s ability to pay in deciding whether to admit a student, and we commit to meeting that student’s financial need.

In fact, we go beyond that. Recognizing that heavy debt loads would limit the options of our graduates, we continue to push down the amount of debt we ask students to incur as a part of their contribution to paying for a University of Chicago education. Most notably, our Odyssey Scholarships replace loans with grants, eliminating an average of $18,000 in debt each for more than 1,100 recipients. This year, we extended our no-loan pledge to all students from the city of Chicago who qualify for financial aid through UChicago Promise.

That progress is one of the reasons our average student debt is less than 80 percent of the national average for private colleges, and two-thirds of our College students graduate debt-free.

This level of commitment to financial aid has a huge impact—especially in this economic climate when other sources of University funding are under pressure and families’ needs are greater than ever. Many colleges and universities have scaled back on their financial aid commitments since the economic downturn. Some have abandoned no-loan pledges, or even reconsidered need-blind admission policies.

By contrast, over the last decade, the University of Chicago has increased annual financial aid from federal, state, and institutional sources for undergraduate students from under $35 million to more than $100 million. The University also provides more than $190 million in annual graduate student support campus-wide.

The same willingness to invest in opportunity applies across the University. Since 2007, the University has invested $54 million in additional financial support for graduate students, including the Graduate Aid Initiative, which provides tuition, health insurance, stipends, research support, and other benefits to many doctoral students.

In order to ensure commitment and progress over the long term, we have made financial aid a fundraising priority. Our most dedicated supporters have responded generously, and many new donors have also been inspired to give. Since President Zimmer’s tenure began in 2006, more than 15,000 alumni and supporters of the University have contributed in excess of $259 million toward student financial aid, including aid for undergraduates and graduate students.

That includes the $100 million anonymous donation that established the Odyssey Scholarships, which benefit one in every five undergraduates. That gift also created a challenge that other donors have met with more than $60 million for the program.

That kind of generosity has changed the course of graduate educations. In 2010, University Trustee and alumnus David Rubenstein (J.D. ’73) gave $10 million to fund 60 full-tuition merit scholarships in the Law School. The Frank family contributed a gift of $10 million to provide scholarships for students in the University’s joint M.D./Ph.D. program. And a number of generous alumni created the Distinguished Fellows Program in the Booth School of Business to honor longtime professor, award-winning teacher, and scholar of business history John E. Jeuck.

President Zimmer recently wrote in The University of Chicago Magazine that “scholarships and fellowships across campus [honor] the generous gifts of alumni who recognize the distinctive education that they received and respond by extending strengthened opportunities to future generations. Each scholarship also represents the great philanthropic tradition that lies at the heart of this university and continues today.” Especially in the face of difficult economic times, we must continue to provide access to students from a wide range of backgrounds, whose varying perspectives enrich the University’s intellectual culture and underscore our core values. This has been our commitment for over a century and will remain a driving force in our efforts to maintain the University of Chicago as an intellectual destination where multiple perspectives come together to generate knowledge and to make this world a better place.

James G. Nondorf is Vice President for Enrollment and Student Advancement and Dean of College Admissions and Financial Aid.