Experts Say Financial Aid Budget Increase Will Have Limited Impact

The GW Hatchet
June 10, 2014

By Colleen Murphy

Six million dollars.

That’s the increase to the GW’s aid budget this year, and college financial aid experts are calling it a drop in the bucket.

The 3.6 percent increase brings aid funds back on track with tuition growth after the pool shrank by $2 million last year. The University’s chief enrollment officer said this year’s $170 million larger aid pool will allow GW to be “more aggressive” in recruiting students, but experts say the increase may not stretch far enough to cover demand.

Sandy Baum, a fellow in the Graduate School for Education and Human Development, said keeping financial aid on par with tuition increases doesn’t give a university the extra money it would like to spread around.

“If you’re enrolled and your tuition and financial aid stay the same, you’re no better or worse off,” she said.

Except for last year, the University has bumped up financial aid every year since 2008 to match tuition increases, which have stayed at about 3 percent. On average, GW met about 86 percent of students’ demonstrated financial need in the 2013-2014 academic year.

Senior Associate Provost for Enrollment Management Laurie Koehler said in an email that the University’s larger pool shows a commitment to making GW degrees more affordable.

“The aid budget approved by the board will enable us to keep pace with the tuition increase approved by the board and might even lead to a higher proportion of the student body being on aid,” said Koehler, who began heading the admissions, financial aid and registrar offices last summer.

She declined multiple requests for a phone interview.

Administrators review the financial aid budget and adjust allocations each year depending on class sizes, anticipated student need and fundraising totals, said Dan Small, associate vice president for financial assistance.

And when GW merges with the Corcoran College of Art + Design next year, that influx of students – 92 percent of whom receive aid – could put added strain on the University’sfinancial aid budget if they are rolled into GW’s pool.

Small said the Corcoran’s financial aid office will continue to handle aid packages until the merger is complete. Once GW links with the Corcoran, he said aid for Corcoran students will be processed in the financial aid or graduate fellowship office.

College admissions strategist Steve Goodman said while any increase to a financial aid pool benefits students, the growth was “good but not good enough” because of a constant need for more funds.

“Why wasn’t it more?” he said. “Six million dollars is less than their spending on operations.”

University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar declined to provide the percentage of students who requested need-based aid for last year.

Because the University relies on tuition for 62 percent of its relatively small endowment, Richard Vedder, the president of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, said GW has to be careful when raising tuition alongside the financial aid funds.

He said GW must balance the need to grow its endowment with a desire to help the neediest and most diverse students with the highest test scores.

“The problem GW has – and colleges like GW – is it’s selective, competitive and likes to think it’s running with the big boys. But many of those schools have larger resources like endowments,” Vedder said. “GW has to be strategic to get students they want at the price the student is willing to pay.”

In October, the University revealed publicly for the first time that it places hundreds of students on its waitlist each year if they cannot afford full tuition. University officials defended the policy, saying it allows them to meet a higher percentage of students’ need.

Vedder said colleges often raise tuition as they expand their financial aid budgets, and he said GW’s tuition increases of 3.4 to 3.7 percent are “about as aggressive as they can get away with” because of a relatively small endowment.

Baum, who serves on a University group that is looking at ways to increase college access, also warned that tuition increases can hurt schools who are tuition reliant like GW because giving out more aid to balance higher tuition puts a strain on the University’s finances and adds more pressure to fundraise to make up the difference.

“Many schools raise their sticker price but don’t actually get more money,” she said. “They may raise tuition and financial aid by the same amount but may not have any extra money as a result, which obviously is an issue for the school.”

And when more students request aid because of higher tuition, Baum said GW will have to balance its objectives with what the students need because “there is never enough need-based aid.”

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