Financial Aid: Higher Ed's High-Stakes Crisis
NORTON, Mass., Sept. 20, 2006 - Charesah Hawkes is what some might call the quintessential Wheaton College student. The senior from Portland, Maine, is the first in her family to attend college. She's a Balfour Scholar, which means that she has strong academic ability. She's heavily involved in campus and community life, editing the student newspaper and leading the campus chapter of Best Buddies. In May she expects to leave Wheaton with a bachelor's degree in political science, acceptance into a top law school, and more than $40,000 of debt.
Just a few years ago, this level of student loan debt was unthinkable; today it is the norm. As the media and government begin to shed more light on the growing college affordability crisis--major American newspapers have published more than 200 stories on the topic this year alone and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has launched the Commission on the Future of Higher Education--colleges like Wheaton are developing new financial aid strategies to stem the tide of students forced to choose another college's financial aid package over Wheaton's academic offerings.
Why does college cost so much?
It's a simple question with a complex answer: College costs so much because knowledge is expensive. Unlike businesses, which strive to keep costs at a minimum, colleges must spend to make themselves as attractive as possible to their constituents--which include prospective students, current students, alumni, faculty and staff, corporate donors, the media and many others--and the biggest expense in higher education is the salaries of those faculty and staff who deliver knowledge to students. As President Ronald A. Crutcher writes in "Convergence", "At its most elemental level, education represents the passing of humanity's most precious asset, knowledge, from one generation to the next. And this transfer is financial as well as intellectual. ...Colleges define profit very differently."
Just more than 50 percent of Wheaton's expenditures support the salary and benefits of the people who provide knowledge and services to students; the national average for U.S. colleges, according to the Department of Education, is nearly 75 percent. Another 20 percent of revenue goes toward the annual expenses that support both academic enterprises and infrastructure, everything from online databases and scientific equipment to heating and cooling bills. The other 30 percent, the college's second largest expenditure, is returned to students in the form of financial aid.
Unofficially, every Wheaton student receives financial aid because no student pays the full price of a Wheaton education. For example, the 2006-07 comprehensive fee is $42,880, but the actual cost of providing an education per student will run about $55,600.
Financial aid: A primer
Financial aid is a necessity for a majority of college students today. In fact, it has become an integral part of higher education. Increasingly, students and their families depend upon scholarship support to cover the cost of college. Some 84 percent of students enrolled at private colleges in 1999-2000 received some scholarship aid, with the average package amounting to $13,400, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Eligibility, or need, is determined by the college's analysis of a family's Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms. The analysis considered factors such as family size, number of dependents attending college, and any extraordinary medical or unusual expenses, as well as the student's and family's total income and assets. A family's expected contribution is calculated, followed by financial aid. Students receive aid in the form of scholarships, Wheaton grants, federal/state/outside grants, federal loans or work study. For many students, however, there is a gap, or unmet need, that must be financed separately, often adding thousands of dollars in debt in addition to federal loans. Roughly 60 percent of Wheaton students rely on financial aid--despite gaps--to pay for their education.
Sara White '07 spent the summer working in Wheaton's office of Student Financial Services and witnessed the challenge firsthand.
"Like most students, I didn't know that much about financial aid until I started working here," she says. "Now, I understand that for many students, it's going to take them years to pay off their Wheaton education." White counts herself among the fortunate few whose financial aid package--combined with her parents' savings and the money she has earned in part-time jobs--covers the cost of college. And while Wheaton was her first choice, White said her college choice was made was easier because Wheaton put together a better financial aid package for her than Skidmore did.
"I'm very lucky," she says. "I couldn't be at Wheaton without the financial aid that I've ...
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