October 10, 2014

More barriers

University’s next step should be to address hurdles hidden beyond those dealt with in new no-loan initiative.

Last week the University announced changes to its financial aid policies, including the new program No Barriers, which notably replaces need-based student loans with grants. The program, in keeping with its name, emphasizes accessibility. The price low-income students pay to attend private colleges has, on average, dropped over the past 10 years; however, the percentage of students at competitive schools from families who lie in the lower 50 percent of household incomes has remained nearly constant since 1982. The reason for this has less to do with the aid itself than its accessibility—many qualified candidates simply don’t apply to selective colleges. No Barriers simplifies the financial aid application process, waives the application fee for students also applying for financial aid, and includes a nationwide tour of free information sessions to guide students and their families through these processes. These changes are significant, especially since the University lags behind many of its peer institutions when it comes to accessibility for low-income students. However, accessibility extends beyond the application process: It also requires that the College be perceived as a supportive environment for the social, academic, and professional growth of all qualified students. The changes to the University’s financial aid policies are promising, but in order to truly improve accessibility, the administration must also consider and address how financial limitations play out on our campus and in a social context.

To give it credit, the University’s updated financial aid policy does contain initiatives that focus on increasing accessibility on campus, most notably through expanding the Odyssey Scholarships. The program, which reduces student loans for low- and moderate-income undergraduates, will now guarantee paid internships or research opportunities for the summer after first year, and will no longer require students to participate in work study. These changes reflect the administration’s consciousness of significant financial barriers that can disadvantage low-income students. However, smaller investments in students’ everyday needs can significantly impact lower-income students’ ability to take advantage of opportunities offered at this institution.

Many of us are unaware of the uncomfortable aspects of the experience of low-income students at this University. For example, housing dues and expensive house trips are an added stress to these students and can prevent them from participating in community-building activities and events, which can potentially make these students feel further isolated. This lack of awareness can also extend beyond students to faculty and professors—high prices for course materials and textbooks are another hurdle for low-income students.

Furthermore, students entering the College may not be aware of how their socioeconomic background may affect them at this University, or of the resources available to them. These kinds of problems are further exacerbated by a lack of any formally designated resource to serve the needs of these students. In an interview with The Maroon, Danielle Wilson of the Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance (SDA) said, “I’ll be interested to know what they plan on doing for low-income students once they get to campus with No Barriers. Because it’s not an easy place to navigate all the time.” Northwestern University recently added a new office addressing the needs of first-generation and low-income students, and the University would do well to follow suit with at least the appointment of a point person for these issues. Existing University offices also have a role to play in ensuring accessibility to all students. College Housing, for example, could provide additional subsidies for house dues, trips, and other activities. Student Government and the Center for Leadership and Involvement could provide additional funding for widely attended campus events like Summer Breeze and Fall Formal.

The first effects of No Barriers will be seen by the incoming class of 2019. In the meantime, the University has a population of students who face a unique set of challenges and would benefit from structural changes. No Barriers follows up on the changes introduced last year by UChicago Promise by expanding its reach beyond the Chicago area. Similarly, we encourage the University to follow up on the changes they’ve instituted through No Barriers—not only on a national scale, but here on our campus as well.

—Maroon Editorial Board