All students are subsidized, even the ones who pay sticker price. That’s a point some colleges have tried to explain to their students in recent years. And it’s one that Richard A. Hesel brought up early in a session of the College Board Forum here on Thursday.
Mr. Hesel, a principal with the Art & Science Group, a higher-education consulting firm, was describing the “perfect storm” colleges now face in promoting financial aid and access.
Along with the usual list of reasons college access is becoming harder to accomplish—the weak economy, state budget cuts, and the rest—Mr. Hesel said that political opposition to the redistribution of wealth presents another obstacle.
Even though affluent, full-paying students benefit from their colleges’ endowments, the idea of students’ subsidizing one another has become controversial. Proposals to limit the amount of tuition revenue used to pay for financial aid have been floated in several states.
In such a climate, colleges that have built generous need-based aid programs to support low-income students might have to defend those choices. “I expect it to be harder going forward to keep this focus,” said Shirley A. Ort, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The university’s Carolina Covenant meets the financial need of low-income students without using loans. The program, which was unveiled in 2003, was the first of its kind at a public university. (North Carolina is one of the states where using tuition revenue for financial aid is being debated.)
The program now has years of data to drawn on, Ms. Ort said, and is “starting to pivot to talk about return on investment.” The university can show that the program has raised the graduation rate of low-income students, for example. And, she added, improving the performance of students who have not been successful as a group helps the university’s overall outcomes.
The University of Richmond, which is private, doesn’t have one big program supporting low-income students, and instead offers several smaller ones, said Nanci Tessier, vice president for enrollment management.
Richmond has need-blind admissions and meets the full need of students. For students enrolled through partnership programs, it meets the full need with grants, Ms. Tessier said. And for Virginia residents whose families make $40,000 or less a year, it offers grant aid covering tuition, room, and board.
Still, there are limits to what the university can do. In 2008, Richmond considered expanding nationwide its program for Virginians who make less than $40,000. But doing so would have been too expensive, Ms. Tessier said. It is important, she said, to design a sustainable financial-aid model because “you don’t want to pull back from your commitments.”
A handful of colleges with generous need-based aid policies have scaled them back in recent years.
Richmond can’t do all the good work, Ms. Tessier said, but it will do what it can.