November 12, 2002

Simplify financial aid bureaucracy

It was good news indeed that a study by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education listed the U of C as having the fifth highest proportion of Pell Grant recipients among first-tier universities. This is a sign that the University's commitment to attracting top students from all economic backgrounds is alive and well. There was more to the story, however; included amongst the statistics was the fact that the U of C witnessed a slight decline in the number of students receiving Pell Grants from 1991. More ominous was vice-president and dean of College enrollment Michael Behnke's forecast that as the College makes a greater push for selectivity, the affluence of the student body will increase. We hope that Dean Behnke's forewarning on the importance of admitting a student body with as much economic diversity as possible are heeded by the admissions office.

No matter what the median economic background of the typical undergraduate will be in five years' time, we are confident that the U of C will always have a place for students from all economic backgrounds, and consequently will need to assist those students in finding the money to study here. This, of course, is an extremely delicate issue. Student aid programs are frequently subject to federal budget cuts, and even the best-endowed and most resourceful universities simply cannot find the funds to allow every qualified student to enroll. Nevertheless, we feel that the University's system of financial aid could be improved in many ways.

Currently, students on financial aid are hampered by an administrative system that shuttles them between the financial aid office, the student loan administration, and the bursar's office. Of course, this sort of bureaucratization is to some extent necessary and most certainly not unique to Chicago. However, any recipient of financial aid can tell you that these offices are hardly the most efficiently run, and they are hardly the most communicative parts of the University administration. Centralizing the student loan process, or at least improving communication amongst its constituent elements, would be well advised. Moreover, each of these offices could improve its relations with the student body. The bursar's office, in particular, has a nasty habit of making life miserable for students whose tuition payments are late, regardless of the reason—even, indeed, if that reason involves a mistake in the bursar's office itself. Stories involving students whose enrollment is blocked, whose bank accounts are frozen because of the blockage, and who have been unable to cash checks in order to remove a blockage because of said blockage, are not just amusing anecdotes. They are signs of serious trouble within the administration. Of course, we don't mean to suggest that the financial aid system at the University is any worse than financial aid anywhere else. Indeed, our administrative system is probably better than most. Nevertheless, a competent distribution of financial aid is important to the perception of a school, and as we make an effort to improve ourselves, we must be mindful of the student body's needs. In essence, the financial aid apparatus must not only wait for its eggs before counting them, but take care of the preexisting chicks as well.