As college tuition rises and peer institutions like Harvard and Yale undergo large initiatives to increase financial aid, Chicago is struggling to find an appropriate strategy to stay competitive in the college market.
College tuitions have been increasing at an average of eight percent each year for the past half-decade according to the College Board, meaning that the price of getting a secondary education doubles every nine years.
"The amount of financial aid we provide automatically increases every year as the cost goes up," said Michael Behnke, Vice-President and Dean of College Enrollment and the College.
The price of attending a top-twenty school for one year costs as much as a fully loaded BMW 525 I, and a four-year stint could make a sizable down payment on a three-bedroom house in a Chicago suburb.
The average American parents, with their average 2.3 children, earn $52,275 a year. The cost for each of their children to attend the average four-year private university is $26,070 a year and rising.
With top-tier universities trying to stay accessible to potential students by providing lucrative aid packages, grants, and awards, financial aid has become a bigger issue than ever.
Though the University is presently involved in a major capital campaign that intends to use a part of the proceeds to supplement new financial aid opportunities, it is unclear how much money will actually be allotted to the department. "We have no special plans [to increase aid] in the near future," Behnke said.
Harvard University began a similar campaign four years ago and has increased the amount of financial aid it offers by over 50 percent, resulting in a total of $68 million awarded annually. Harvard officials praised the campaign for maintaining a culturally and economically diverse student body and disavowing elitist stereotypes about the school.
"I suppose there is a stigma, but Harvard has always worked to get students from all sorts of backgrounds," said Janet Irons, an associate director at the Harvard financial aid department. "Our policies are designed to encourage a diverse student body."
While 50 percent of students at Harvard and Princeton are receiving some form of financial aid, only 427 out of the 1076 enrolled students in the class of 2005, just under 40 percent, are getting money from Chicago.
The unstable economy has been a large consideration in these new financial campaigns. More parents are forced to ask for money to support their children because of concern over their own investments and retirement.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the average income of the American family dropped 1.7 percent this year, the second straight year it has experienced a decline.
The price of living on campus has also grown with tuition's inflation, boosting student's non-academic costs substantially. Living expenses are often not covered in financial aid packages, which cause more students to take on part-time jobs.
The federal government received 970,000 applications for its work/study program in 2001, a three percent increase from the previous year.
The University's response to these problems has been more structural than monetary, hoping to streamline the financial aid department and make it more efficient and accessible to all students. The administration has started working with Student Government to draft a proposal that could make several important changes to the way students handle their financial aid.
"One of our goals when campaigning was to address several of the complaints that students had with the financial aid department," said Enrique Gomez, president of Student Government. "We have built a good relationship with the administration and hope to reach a solution."
Both students and University officials agree that updating resources on the Internet for returning and prospective students is the most pressing need. Currently, the financial aid department does not have its own Web site but only a link from the University's general admissions page. The information on these pages is directed at potential applicants and contains little information concerning enrolled students.
"The Web development is very rudimentary compared to Yale or Princeton's Web page," Gomez said. "Having the Web site for prospective students on the admissions site seems reasonable, but for retuning students it doesn't make much sense."
In addition to the creation of a separate financial aid Web site for current students, the University hopes to make online application for financial aid possible for all students. "Our first priority is the Web," Behnke said. "We are moving to have all our forms online and students will be able to apply more easily."
Student Government is also proposing adjustments to the way the financial aid office receives feedback from the student body. Unlike other units, the financial aid office has no written evaluation form that it gives students after an appointment, and has thus found it difficult to create a reciprocal dialogue.
In order to address this need for communication, administrators want to implement a system similar to the academic advisor evaluation.
Some students have expressed frustration with the financial aid office and the way it has handled students in the past. One student who wishes to remain anonymous said, upon returning to school one year, he discovered that his aid had been dramatically cut. The student said that neither he nor his family had been alerted to the change.
Yet many students are content with the University's service and believe it is comparable with the nation's other top schools. "[The University] offered me as much money as anywhere else," said Emile Ernandez, a second-year in the College. "In fact, they even gave me a little more money this year."
The University will hold an open meeting on February 25 to discuss financial issues with students and staff members. The central topic of panel discussion will be the affect of the rising cost of tuition and living expenses on the process of education. Speakers will include Don Randel, Behnke, and a speaker from Cornell who specializes in the economics of university administration. After remarks from each of these speakers, students will be encouraged to ask questions and make comments.
"The administration will be looking to explain the rise in tuition to students, but the real focus will be on the committee and its ideas," Behnke said.
Perhaps the panelists can even explain to us why a dinner at Pierce costs $12, but maybe that is asking too much.