Keeping an Avenue Open

Strong financial aid underscores our commitment to access for all.

July/August 2004

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Keeping an Avenue Open

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

In April, a New York Times article focused on a trend many in higher education have been watching with concern. The article, “As Wealthy Fill Top Colleges, Concerns Grow Over Fairness,” asserted that upper-income students are increasingly filling freshman classes at selective colleges and universities primarily at the expense of middle-income students.

The Times cited a Higher Education Research Institute survey, which reported that “in 2000, about 55 percent of freshmen at the nation’s 250 most selective colleges, public and private, were from the highest earning fourth of households, compared with 46 percent in 1985....” It added, “The number from the bottom fourth dipped slightly over that period, while those from the middle 50 percent fell sharply.”

Partly in response to these concerns, Harvard announced a change in its financial aid program to reduce the burden for low-income students offered admission.

How does Stanford compare in the economic diversity of its student body and in financial aid? As dean of admission and financial aid Robin Mamlet noted in the last issue of this magazine, Stanford’s financial aid programs have, for many years, provided a greater level of assistance to low-income families. Harvard’s program—after the changes—will approach ours.

What about the representation of less wealthy students? The estimated socioeconomic composition of the Class of 2007 suggests that Stanford is doing a good job at remaining accessible to all students. In fact, our experience appears to be contrary to national trends. Stanford has never had as much socioeconomic diversity as it has today.

Nevertheless, increased concern about the national picture encourages us to redouble our efforts to stay need-blind in our admissions and to offer comprehensive need-based financial aid packages to domestic students who earn admittance. When admission counselors review an application, a student is judged by his or her academic accomplishments, intellectual promise, ability to make the most of his or her possibilities and potential to make unique contributions. If a student is admitted and requests financial aid, we guarantee to find a way to meet the student’s calculated need so that finances are not an obstacle to attending Stanford.

Originally, Leland and Jane Stanford wanted a tuition-free university. Leland Stanford wrote in 1893 that the rich “can get their education anywhere, but the object is more particularly to reach the multitude—those people who have to consider the expenditure of every dollar.” It wasn’t until 1920 that tuition was charged, and even then, it was done reluctantly. At that time, our commitment to need-blind admissions was born.

How does this commitment translate to financial assistance? Almost 75 percent of our students receive some type of internal or external aid, including loans and scholarships, and almost 50 percent receive need-based scholarship help directly from the University. Over the past several years, we have increased our financial aid program to expand support for middle-income families. In particular, we capped the amount of home equity we take into account in determining parental assets, limiting the size of the loans we would ask a middle-class family to use toward educational costs.

Students on financial aid graduate with an average indebtedness of about $17,000—or a little over $4,000 for each year of study. The indebtedness of low-income students is closer to $6,500. Our program is competitive with Harvard’s, even after its changes, because we have always expected a lower level of “self-help” contributions and summer earnings from lower-income students. We have found that low-income families and students are often dependent on such sources of income to meet everyday expenses.

Part of the problem might be that we have been too modest about our historic commitment to open access and the good job we’ve done expanding that commitment in recent years. In fact, a Stanford Daily editorial excerpted by the New York Times Knowledge Network on May 28 suggests that we need to “begin doing a good job a little more loudly.”

That is no doubt true, but we also must acknowledge that Stanford has fewer resources than many of its peers for supporting the operations of the University and for financial aid. That fact, however, does not diminish our commitment to offering competitive financial aid packages. Still, next year, we must find about $20 million in operating funds to augment contributions by Stanford’s alumni and income from scholarship endowment.

Stanford’s challenge is that our endowment per student is less than that of many of our peer institutions. Hence, a primary ongoing objective of the Campaign for Undergraduate Education has been to increase the pool of endowed funds, including those for undergraduate financial aid. And our alumni have responded magnificently, already committing more than $175 million for new need-based financial aid endowment. The commitment of our alumni helps ensure that we can fulfill Jane Stanford's wish that the University should keep “open an avenue whereby the deserving and exceptional may rise through their own efforts.”

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