During his State of the College address last Wednesday, LSA Dean Terrence McDonald introduced a proposal to increase the college’s financial aid and fully fund tuition expenses for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This long-overdue proposal must be thoroughly flushed out, as it could provide an important way to attract and retain students who might otherwise be unable to attend the University.
The continual rising cost of higher education, combined with the ever-increasing necessity of a college degree to be competitive in the job market, often serves to further disadvantage poor students. In many cases, qualified students admitted to the University or institutions of a similar caliber end up attending less prestigious schools because they are less expensive. Students who choose to attend more expensive schools experience difficulty juggling academics and part-time work. Furthermore, low-income students are saddled with crippling debt from student loans upon graduation — further disadvantaging the underprivileged. At a time when federal Pell grants cover a smaller share of tuition than in the past, universities can and should help address the seemingly insurmountable cost of a college education for poor students with financial grants.
Private institutions such as Princeton and Harvard have long been aware of the problem and have moved to replace loans with scholarships and grants. Recently, other prominent public institutions, like the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have announced similar proposals to provide for low-income students. It is time the University followed their lead.
There are few details available concerning the proposal. McDonald’s speech was vague. It is difficult to judge how many students LSA’s hypothetical program might cover or how it might be paid for. It is important that the funding not come at the expense of other current financial aid programs. Tuition at the University is one of the highest among public institutions in the country, and middle-income families are often only able to pay tuition costs by receiving partial financial aid. A new fund should be established to pay for full-tuition coverage for low-income students. The money for such a fund could be raised as part of the ongoing Michigan Difference capital campaign.
If it becomes a reality, this program could improve the University’s effort to build a diverse community, which has recently become difficult due to declining minority enrollment. It would be even more effective if full funding for poor students were not restricted to LSA. If all of the University’s colleges offered similar programs, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds could confidently pursue a University education, regardless of their field of interest. The University should not lag behind in this area; it is imperative that McDonald’s current abstract proposal turn into concrete results.