February 6, 2009

Administrators: Merit aid could take a hit next year

Financial aid concerns, including the University’s response to global economic instability, were a major topic of discussion between administrators and Student Government (SG) members at the College Council (CC) meeting in Stuart Hall Wednesday night.

Director of College Aid Alicia Reyes, Dean of College Enrollment Michael Behnke, and Dean of Students Susan Art said there would be no change to financial aid policy and emphasized their continued commitment to need-based aid, though they mentioned that merit awards may decrease.

“Our overarching principle is that when a student starts an academic year, we want to do everything we can to help them stay in school for the year,” she said. “We often have students in the middle of winter quarter who can’t get registered, and we work with them to try to solve that problem.”

While need-based aid remains intact, the number of merit awards given may be reduced, Reyes said. Lines of credit, particularly from private lenders, have also changed.

“With federal loans, there has been no decline in availability,” Reyes said. “But private loans have diminished, and loans for students without cosigners are mostly gone.”

Some SG members expressed concern about the availability of funding for international students, who frequently require full aid. While admission is need-blind for domestic applicants, international students must prove they can fund all four years at the University during the admissions process to obtain a visa. Consequently, their aid status cannot be changed after admission.

Administrators said about 15 percent of international students receive aid today, and resources will not permit much further funding.

Although peer institutions such as Harvard University have taken steps to eliminate debt for middle-income students in recent years, Behnke argued that there is currently no competitive advantage to a similar expansion of University aid programs.

“[Administrators] thought their policies, as they are, are meeting student need,” SG President and fourth-year Matt Kennedy said. “They’re not looking to change their policies.”

After the meeting with administrators, Kennedy encouraged CC members to research how the University’s aid programs compare to those of peer institutions. He also stressed the importance of forming ties with the future dean of enrollment, who will succeed Behnke after his retirement in July.

While Kennedy said he appreciated the administration’s openness to questions and their flexibility to students with changing financial situations, he also believes the meeting is the beginning of a much longer dialogue.

“It’s a starting point for students who want to pursue advocacy and to change the way the University thinks,” he said. “That’s the thing about universities—they outlast countries…. When thinking about an institution like the University of Chicago, or any academic institution, long-term change happens incrementally.”