Students press Zimmer on financial aid

By Connie Hsiung

University President Robert Zimmer convened with students on Wednesday to address the University’s policy on undergraduate financial aid and to outline the administration’s future aid objectives in a forum hosted by Student Government (SG). The discussion came on the heels of a 5.4-percent College tuition increase that has spurred concerns among students over the affordability of attending the U of C.

Zimmer began by briefing the roughly 30 students at Bartlett Lounge on the basics of financial aid at the University, emphasizing that the annual $50 million financial aid commitment to undergraduates is “of the highest priority” to the administration.

Zimmer was accompanied by Susan Art, dean of Students in the College, and Michael Behnke, dean of College Enrollment, who is directly responsible for the offices of College Admission and Financial Aid.

Students voiced frustration with financial aid packages offered by the University, noting that awards seem to fall behind other expensive colleges. Fourth-year College Council representative Phil Caruso pressed Zimmer on the issue, inquiring about how packages measure up against peer institutions.

“It varies,” Zimmer responded, “but I would say, roughly speaking…that we’re keeping pace.” He said that academic peers like Harvard University, Princeton University, and the University of Pennsylvania are far wealthier institutions and can offer more extensive financial aid packages. “They’re able to structure the aid differently because they have more money,” he said.

But students continued to press Zimmer on why the University had not made a larger financial commitment to undergraduate aid, especially in light of recent high-profile and expensive expenditures.

Zimmer deflected these inquiries by noting the importance of restricted endowments and revenue to the University, which limits the spending of some of the University’s income to specific fields or divisions. He also emphasized that the University had to prioritize spending to improve the overall academic experience.

Other students complained that the University did not make financial aid exceptions for veterans or for students who had parents unwilling to contribute toward tuition.

“The whole financial aid system is based on ability to pay, not willingness to pay,” Behnke said. “We generally expect both parents to contribute to their child’s education before we step in.”

After the discussion, students expressed frustration with what they perceived as evasiveness and number manipulation by the administrators.

“I feel as if talking about it like this doesn’t accomplish anything. If we want change, we have to fight for it because they’re saying things we know are untrue,” said one second-year who asked to remain anonymous.

The financial aid forum was the result of a series of discussions between SG members and Bill Michel, assistant vice president for Student Life. At the event, SG representatives expressed a desire to make the organization figure more prominently in student-administration interactions. Recognizing that student discussions with the president had varied widely between poorly attended brown-bag lunches and raucous forums, SG hoped to create an event that would be both productive and informative.

“As those of you who were at last meeting can attest, not a lot of positive dialogue occurred,” wrote SG College Council chairman Scott Duncombe in a list host e-mail. “Basically, the conclusion is that this open-forum model doesn’t seem to work that well and that we need to try to find a new venue which balances openness and effectiveness.”

Students were required to RSVP for the event, although they were not restricted in what they were able to ask. A similar financial aid forum geared toward graduate students is tentatively planned for later this month.