June 1, 2007

Granting the life of the mind

This week, an anonymous alumnus donated an unprecedented $100 million that will enable students from low- and middle-income families to enjoy the fruits of a U of C education.

The donation will transform the campus culture and improve the educational experience of all students by fostering socioeconomic diversity and helping the University fulfill its obligation as a vehicle of social mobility. It will allow many students, facing much more manageable student loans, to follow their ambitions rather than becoming tied down by their debts after college.

Our society is held together by the promise that those who work hard will achieve success, regardless of their economic conditions. This means that no qualified student from a low-income family should ever be prevented from attending a top-tier institution because of an inability to pay. The University already strives to fulfill this goal by promising to meet 100 percent of applicants’ demonstrated financial need; the Odyssey scholarships created by the gift add teeth to that promise, awarding students grants rather than burdening them with loans.

This shift will have consequences far beyond the admissions process because the amount of debt students face after the U of C can profoundly alter their college experience and career plans. As a result of this gift, fewer students will be obligated to take work-study jobs, enabling them to enjoy the College’s full range of opportunities to the same extent as everyone else.

After their stay on campus, these students will still reap the benefits of this gift. Students who might prefer to join the Peace Corps, go to grad school in philosophy, or become high school-teachers are regularly forced to compromise these dreams because they are saddled with incredible levels of debt after graduation. For almost a quarter of the students in the College, the Odyssey scholarships will change that calculus.

Finally, the donation makes the University’s commitment to free inquiry more credible. By making education more affordable to more students, the gift will bring in students who see the world through a wider variety of lenses than ever before. Although students in upper-middle-class families will continue to have to make major financial sacrifices to come here, the gift will lessen the number of qualified students who are deterred by the University’s high price tag.

This gift, in short, will greatly improve the University. We hope that more alumni will follow this donor’s generous example.