In her annual speech before the Senate Assembly last week, University President Mary Sue Coleman stated her vision for the University at its 2017 bicentennial. What she described was a university that is both world-class and affordable – a 21st-century version of past University President James Angell’s vision of providing an “uncommon education for the common man.”

Sarah Royce

Coleman affirmed the University’s commitment to increasing accessibility by announcing the creation of the President’s Challenge Fund. The initiative alone may not be enough to ensure no student is turned away for lack of money, but it is a promising sign that the University is working on solutions to rising tuition costs.

Paying for a University education without financial aid isn’t just difficult, it’s downright impossible for many. Students from middle-and low-income families simply cannot afford soaring tuition costs without substantial financial assistance. The University is committed to meeting the financial need of all its in-state students, and it tries to cover a good share for out-of-state students. It has also increased financial aid to match tuition increases. But the sticker price remains high and financial aid packages are often heavily composed of loans, which can deter students from even applying and leave those who rack up four years of loans paying back debt for decades.

The initiative will use money out of the University’s discretionary fund to match donations of up to one $1 million for need-based scholarships. By doubling the impact of donors’ money, the University hopes to encourage further giving. Increasing need-based financial aid will attract students from middle -and lower-class backgrounds, giving them the opportunity to afford a college education, something that may have never been a financial possibility before. But the matching fund can only do so much, and the University must continue to develop more ways to expand need-based financial aid.

Regent Kathy White has made one suggestion that merits serious consideration: The University could require that a certain percentage of money donated for building projects is allocated to need-based scholarships. Setting aside a small percentage of such large donations would barely affect the intended project, but it would make a big difference to needy students. White’s idea also could be revised to incentivize donations to need-based aid by encouraging donors to endow specific need-based scholarships.

With in-state tuition often topping $10,000 a year and out-of-state tuition three times that, reducing financial barriers is no easy task. State support for the University is unlikely to increase significantly any time soon, and the question isn’t whether tuition will increase again, it’s by how much.

In her speech last week, Coleman said “Family finances should not keep qualified students from enrolling and contributing to our university.” Indeed, the University must strive to ensure that financial concerns are never a reason to keep a student from applying or enrolling. Particularly in light of Proposal 2’s passage, the administration needs to use all funds available to keep the University’s doors open to every qualified student.

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