The Access Imperative

Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

How do we ensure that future generations will have the same opportunities we have had? That was the question I posed at my inauguration in 2000, and in the succeeding years, I have kept that objective firmly in view.

Essential to the university’s continued excellence and renewal is its ability to attract the brightest young minds, and strengthening financial aid for our students has been among my highest priorities. At a time when increasing college costs and student debt have been of great concern nationally, we have worked to keep Stanford affordable.

Since 2000, the university has more than doubled the amount it spends annually on undergraduate aid. In 2014-15, 58 percent of our undergraduates received some form of aid from the university. As a result, the net undergraduate tuition (after financial aid) has actually decreased in real terms since 2000.

The endowment supporting undergraduate need-based aid has more than tripled since 2000 to approximately $1.7 billion and will generate almost $95 million of the more than $140 million budgeted for aid this year. The Stanford Fund contributes about $18 million annually; university general funds make up most of the balance. Eliminating the use of general funds, a position achieved just before the 2008 economic crisis, will require $400 million in additional endowment and is an important long-term objective.

Twice in recent years we significantly expanded our aid program to make Stanford more accessible. After the global economic crisis, our students’ need for financial aid increased, even as the university’s reserves decreased. But our commitment to our financial aid program was unwavering. Thanks to the generosity of alumni, parents and friends, we were able to meet student needs and, in succeeding years, increased the endowment and stabilized funding for financial aid. As a result of our shared commitment, Stanford now has one of the strongest financial aid programs in the country.

Today, it is easier for students with limited means to attend Stanford. Students with family incomes below $125,000 pay no tuition; if family income is below $65,000, parents do not pay tuition, room or board. Students are not required to take out loans; they are asked to contribute part of their summer and work-study earnings, but their contributions are kept small to avoid the need to borrow. As a result, Stanford students incur far less debt than the national average. In fact, 78 percent of those earning degrees in 2014-15 had no debt.

While we aspire to meet the needs of all students, we are not yet need-blind for international students. But we have made progress here as well—almost tripling need-based aid awarded to international students over the past decade. Fully endowing need-blind international financial aid, an important long-term goal, will require approximately $200 million in new endowment.

In addition to strengthening undergraduate financial aid, we have increased support for graduate students. In the face of diminishing federal funding for research, the university has assumed more of the burden.

Last year, more than 7,900 graduate students received aid, which included more than $119 million in university fellowships and almost $50 million in teaching assistantships from Stanford. Despite significant increases in university aid, external financial support still provides about half our total graduate financial aid of almost $400 million.

We have seen firsthand the difference financial aid can make for undergraduate and graduate students. It can literally change lives—both for students and for those they encounter when they go out into the world.

Thanks to the generosity of alumni, parents and friends, current and future generations will benefit, and Stanford University will continue as the “university of high degree” envisioned by its founders.


John Hennessy was the president of Stanford University.