Financial Aid: A Columbia Tradition
By Brian Krisberg ’81
First Vice President, Columbia College Alumni Association
Financial aid is a popular topic in the media. Newspapers and magazines
are writing about it more often than in years past. Peer institutions
(including, especially, Princeton and Harvard) are getting attention
for their generosity. Some colleges are using financial aid as an admissions
device to compete for gifted students. Where, you might ask, does Columbia
stand on financial aid?
Columbia College has had a long-standing commitment to
financial aid that dates back to the 1960s, when the
College embarked on a policy of supporting intelligent and needy students
at a time when many colleges did not. Through the years, the College
frequently has ranked at or near the top of the Ivy League in the percentage
of enrolled students receiving “grant” aid (financial aid
comprises two main components: “self-help,” which combines
loans and work-study income, and “grant” aid). This commitment
is particularly noteworthy when one considers Columbia’s endowment
during much of this period, which was relatively small compared to
peer institutions. The percentage of enrolled College students receiving
aid in the form of Columbia grants since that time generally has been
between 38–44 percent.
Financial aid came naturally to the College because
of certain unique aspects of our community. The
College always has taken great pride in being a place where less well-off
students feel comfortable and supported. Further, the College has been
a top choice destination for children of families whose parents didn’t
attend college or families looking into selective colleges for the
first time. The College, in short, is not an elitist sanctuary; to
the contrary, it provides a welcoming environment for students from
Columbia’s tradition of supporting
financial aid is under pressure.
Today, Columbia’s tradition of supporting students through
financial aid is under pressure, pressure that takes a number of forms.
Statistics indicate that the debt burden of a student on financial
aid graduating from Harvard or Princeton is roughly one-half of the
debt load of a Columbia College graduate. Surveys conducted by the
College of applicants to other colleges who needed financial aid and
chose not to apply to Columbia indicate that the perception of higher
cost at Columbia was one of the principal reasons they chose not to
apply in the first place. While one-third of the College students on
financial aid continue to come from families with incomes of $45,000
or less, Harvard and Princeton have received attention in the media
for their extra efforts to target these candidates. The College identified
the consequent issue of financial aid competitiveness several years
ago and now has the evidence to back it up.
It is clear that the pressures described above, if not
addressed, will damage the College’s ability to compete with
other Ivy schools for the strongest applicants needing financial aid.
Ultimately, the College’s current standing as one of the most
selective colleges in the United States may be compromised. Faced with
this reality, the University is planning a campaign — the first
part of a larger capital campaign that will be announced in 2006 —
to permanently endow financial aid at the College. You will hear much
more about this in the months and years to come.
Columbia uses, on a relative basis, a larger portion of
tuition revenues, rather than endowment, to pay for financial aid when
compared to its competitors. Annual giving also plays a significant
part in covering the cost of financial aid. Funding more financial
aid from a significantly enlarged endowment for this purpose will permit
the College to enhance the levels of financial aid and apply released
tuition revenues to building the faculty and staff and improving the
quality of facilities and services.
Notwithstanding the College’s oft-stated and long-standing
commitment to need-blind admissions and full-need financial aid, some
alumni or parents (albeit a minority) may question this emphasis on
enlarging the pool of funds available for financial aid and endowing
financial aid permanently. They may cite the value of maintaining a
job during their college years or question whether financial aid undercuts
a student’s need to take responsibility for his or her college years.
Or they themselves were not on financial aid.
My response is, first, that enhanced financial aid at peer
schools has continued to leave students with an appropriate responsibility,
through self-help, to contribute to their education, and Columbia will
do the same. Second, we need to consider the key role of a great college
within a great research university in the U.S. educational system.
What is the fundamental purpose of a place such as Columbia, with its
extraordinary breadth and depth of course offerings and the chances
it provides our students to meet smart and engaging individuals?
The purpose is, in short, to create opportunities for future generations
based on merit and talent, and not based on lineage or family income.
Columbia’s tradition of supporting financial aid and commitment to
financial aid as an agent of social mobility and change is a fundamental
part of this. The College prepares its undergraduates for leadership roles
by offering them the opportunity to study and live with, and learn from, a
mixture of students that reflects the society they will inhabit. In this
respect, all College students benefit from the financial aid Columbia
provides. Viewed in this manner, improving the financial aid outlook
is an essential policy objective of the College administration
that all members of the College community should support.