Stanford opened its doors in 1891 as a nondenominational, coeducational institution, welcoming many students of modest means. Jane and Leland Stanford made those choices to establish their university’s character as an inclusive one.
Our founders understood education as a vehicle to “correct inequalities” and to afford opportunities for students to “rise through their own efforts from the lowest to highest stations in life.”
Inspired by what Jane Stanford called “a spirit of equality,” our financial aid policies today are among the most comprehensive in higher education. Even amidst the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, we remained steadfast in our commitment.
We strive to meet the financial need for every undergraduate who qualifies for assistance. We do so through grants and scholarships, not loans. We provide scholarships to cover all tuition payments for students whose parents have annual incomes under $125,000. Additionally, we cover room and board for those below the income threshold of $65,000 per year. Grants and scholarships are available above the $125,000 threshold as well. One in four undergraduates benefits from our full-tuition scholarship policy. Almost half receive some level of need-based financial aid from Stanford.
Today, 80 percent of our undergraduate students leave Stanford with zero student loan debt. Of the remaining students who do take out loans, the median amount of debt upon graduation is $14,600—less than half the national average.
One challenge we and other leading research universities face is attracting more economically diverse applicants. Research by Stanford economics professor Caroline Hoxby found that 53 percent of low-income, high-achieving students do not apply to highly selective colleges, even though they would likely be admitted based on their grades and test scores.
The data show that, once admitted, low-income students are as likely as higher-income students to succeed academically. A more diverse student body is also known to improve educational outcomes for all students, including in intellectual engagement, interpersonal cooperation, critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving. Diversity is how we achieve excellence.
Yet, as Stanford economics professor Raj Chetty recently found, highly selective institutions are proportionately educating far fewer low-income students than other institutions. The results were humbling for Stanford and our peer institutions in the Ivy League, who were found to graduate more students from the top 1 percent than from the bottom 50 percent of the income distribution. While low-income students from our institutions do go on to be highly successful, we must redouble our efforts to attract and admit more economically diverse, high-achieving students if we wish to fulfill our potential as engines of upward mobility.
To this end, we have stepped up our targeted outreach to high schools and community-based organizations to connect with counselors, teachers, students and families. We conduct information sessions about Stanford’s offerings, organize workshops about the college application process and develop programs to foster enthusiasm for pursuing higher education.
Once students come to Stanford, we invest significant resources to improve low-income students’ on-campus experience, applying research-based interventions to close the “belonging gap” felt by some low-income and first-generation students. Support services provided through our Diversity and First-Gen Office, Leland Scholars Program and Transfer Advising Program have earned Stanford national recognition for leading the way when it comes to post-enrollment support.
Although we have made progress, there is much more to be done. In the long-range planning process now under way, we will be looking for methods to improve Stanford’s affordability and accessibility for undergraduates and graduates from the United States and internationally.
True to the commitment of our founders, we must continue to improve access for the talented from all walks of life.
Marc Tessier-Lavigne is the president of Stanford University.