New financial aid fundraising initiative sees early success
In light of economic downturn, Tufts tries to cope with rising need
Published: Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 08:10
In 2007 and 2008, Tufts admissions’ process went need-blind. Large gifts were rolling in, including a significant donation from eBay founder and billionaire Pierre Omidyar (LA ’88). The financial aid budget was doing well, such that Tufts had enough money to admit all students regardless of their financial need — and it did so for two years.
So what happened? The recession hit. Subsequently, need-blind admissions, which were implemented in practice by the university but not by any official policy from the Board of Trustees, were reversed.
“Everyone stopped and said, this changes the calculus,” Lee Coffin, dean of undergraduate admissions for the School of Arts and Sciences, said.
According to Coffin, although former University President Lawrence Bacow made financial aid a priority during his term, the recession had sobering effects on his plans.
“[He] said, ‘I think it’s critically important that we focus on our current students first and any new need they might have before we make any indications to the next class,’” Coffin said. “It was either we move towards need-blind and let some of our current students withdraw because we didn’t have resources to give to them, or we serve them first and hold back on need-blind in the freshman admission process until those resources were regenerated.”
Provost and Senior Vice President David Harris, however, noted that the economic downturn has not resulted in more students applying for need-based aid but instead has caused the same students’ average needs to grow.
“What that’s telling you is that being need-blind takes more money than it previously would have,” he said. “When we say we’re not need-blind, that doesn’t mean we’re less committed, it just means the goal posts got moved further down the road.”
As students’ needs have grown, so has the average size of Tufts’ need-based grants in an attempt to keep up. The packages granted to the Class of 2014 were on average $28,404, the class of 2015 received $29,995, the class of 2016 received $31,940 and the class of 2017 received $36,241 in grants. Each year has reset the record high for the university, according to Coffin.
“What makes me sober is when I look at the additional money, it didn’t move the needle on the percentage of the class receiving aid,” Coffin said.
He also noted that about 52 to 54 percent of accepted students have received aid for the past few years, although about two thirds of Tufts applicants have applied for it.
In an article published in the Boston Globe on Aug. 25, Coffin explained that financial aid is only considered at the end of the admissions process: each applicant is reviewed first based on merit, then their total financial need is calculated. The admissions office then calculates how many students would accept Tufts’ offer and its cost. If that number exceeds the financial aid budget, some promising students are eliminated.
Harris said some need is not met since the need formulas can be so restrictive.
“You’ll find a school saying, we cover 100 percent of the need. Then you’ll find people saying, ‘I can’t make it work,’” Harris said. “It’s really in these formulas about need that we have to follow.”
Students that fall in between those who qualify for and receive a lot of aid and those who are wealthy enough not to need aid at all are often excluded in the financial aid processes. These students will likely graduate with between $23,000 and $24,000 in debt.
The federal methodology to determine the aid a student can receive considers factors including parent income, parent assets, number in family, number in college, number of working parents and age of the older parent. These are reported in the Federal financial aid application. The Tufts formula, which is used with the federal formula, also includes home equity.
According to Coffin, one reason why families may not be able to afford rising college costs, even with larger amounts of university grants, is federal aid’s failure to rise in tandem with need. He noted that there was a point during the 1970s when a Federal Pell Grant could cover a significant portion of college costs, which is no longer the case, and colleges are expected to try and fill the gap.
“Our cost of tuition has gone up slower than our amount of financial aid,” Harris said. “So that’s not the story, that college is more expensive because [we’re] holding back money. It’s federal and state support that’s rolled back.”
The university, Coffin pointed out, cannot focus solely on financial aid in planning the budget.
“If you think about our infrastructure, our campus, it’s beautiful but you have to do building maintenance and technology costs, and those costs get incorporated into the budget,” Coffin said.
This, according to Harris, is the main reason why Tufts cannot go need-blind and why tuition continues to rise.
“We do not think it is plausible that we will have the resources to put Lee’s calculus consistently in the black and have a university that is of the quality that we want to admit these kids into,” Harris said. “It has to be sustainable.”
To deal with these economic limitations, Tufts has made efforts to expand the types of socioeconomic backgrounds represented on campus. While two years ago students with total incomes under $40,000 received financial aid packages made exclusively of grants rather than loans, these packages have been extended to include those incomes under $60,000, according to Coffin.
“We tied it to socioeconomic access,” he said. “The philosophy was, use [these packages] to guarantee access for those who are most economically at risk.”
According to Coffin, in 2007, many universities began to move toward replacing more and more of their loans with grants, increasing the income requirement even up to $100,000.