The Colgate Scene ON-LINE


by James Leach

For Marcelle Tyburski, who directs Colgate’s office of student aid, the once-rare experience of having a prospective student’s parents call to negotiate an aid package has become commonplace.

Ecology field work on Payne Creek

As more colleges offer merit awards to attract their most desired students, market pressure threatens to undermine the student aid policies of colleges like Colgate that base their financial aid awards solely on need.

It works this way: If your mix of abilities, experiences, personal qualities and background placed you in a small group at the very top among applicants to Colgate’s class of 2002, the college would determine your financial need through an analysis of your family’s resources and offer you a package of aid to meet your need fully. Another college with a merit-based aid policy, meanwhile, could offer you a scholarship regardless of your family’s financial strength — upping the award to you and your family as an added incentive for you to enroll.

The merit chase

Some colleges have always awarded merit aid as a way of attracting enrollments from limited applicant pools. But in recent years, a growing number of more selective colleges have moved to merit awards as a way of attracting students whose credentials will raise the college’s profile. It is a function of a more competitive market where families (usually with the assistance of a handful of college guidebooks) weigh the statistics for one college’s student body against those for others to determine which is the "best." The better the students the better the college, the logic goes, and colleges with merit-based aid programs are spending merit money to attract better students who would likely enroll elsewhere, were it not for the sweeter aid offer.

To Mary Hill, Colgate’s dean of admission, the increasing number of colleges who have entered the merit chase are "like the flood waters rising." She says it is a challenge for colleges with need-based policies like Colgate’s to "keep their heads above the water. The risk is that students and their families might choose the best deal, rather than choosing the best college."

‘The irony is that if we are forced to give merit aid by those who are less strong than we, then those strong institutions from which we will attract students will also be forced to give merit aid. And when everyone gives merit aid it is equivalent to nobody giving merit aid, or worse. We will all spend more money for students we would get anyway, and therefore we will have less money to aid those students who really need it.’ -- President Neil Grabois

"Increasingly we are on the margin between those colleges who actively use merit aid to attract students and those colleges that are in a league that enables them to attract the best students without relying on merit aid," Hill says. On the margin is an anxious place to be, and the college finds itself revisiting the aid question on a regular basis. Merit aid would represent a fundamental shift for the college, with ramifications in the near and long term.

Meeting full need

The principle of meeting full need as Colgate does distributes the funds available for student aid in a way that is meant to make enrollment attractive for the largest possible number of the best-qualified applicants. The needs of the college — for exceptional scholars, for leaders, for athletes, for a population that is diverse economically, culturally and geographically — provides a template for Hill and her staff to rank aid applicants. Tyburski and her colleagues in the student aid office then create packages with some combination of a loan and/or job and/or scholarship that will meet the full financial need of the accepted students, as determined with assistance from the College Board, a national organization.

When the college has exhausted its budget for aid, it may elect to admit a qualified student but deny that person aid. Understandably, only about 10 percent of those "admit/denies" choose to enroll, but the college continues to make offers of admission as a way of recognizing the talents of capable students. (After their first year at Colgate, students who entered as admit/denies are usually awarded aid.)

Given limits on the budget for aid (the college will spend approximately $18 million of its own resources on aid this year), a decision to award merit aid beyond the demonstrated need of some applicants would mean an increase in the number of admit/denies. As the awards to the very top applicants increased beyond their need, the money available to aid those applicants further down in the pool would be reduced. Those applicants would in turn become admit/denies — applicants whom the college would like to have but who, in most cases, couldn’t afford to enroll.

So Colgate has held the line and opted not to offer merit. In a recent Annual Report of the Office of Student Aid, Tyburski noted that "Merit aid offers from other schools continued to be used by parents and students as a negotiating tool. We feel fortunate that we continue to yield highly qualified students in spite of those merit award offers." Colgate students and their families, in other words, judge that the university’s high quality outweighs offers of extra assistance from other institutions.

But if the wolf is not at the door, he is at least in the yard. Increasingly, colleges that compete closely with Colgate are dabbling in merit or making a full commitment to aid programs that go beyond need. Some are sneaking up on merit, offering selective merit awards in a handful of cases to influence the occasional applicant without announcing a change in policy. Others have pursued the strategy more aggressively, boldly announcing their intentions to all who will listen.

Students perform at the Barge Canal Coffee Company

President Neil Grabois acknowledges: "We are aware of the issue of merit aid all the time. It may be that as institutions not as strong as Colgate begin in numbers to give merit aid, they will be able to attract some of the students who now come to Colgate and we may be forced to have merit aid."

President Neil Grabois acknowledges: "We are aware of the issue of merit aid all the time. It may be that as institutions not as strong as Colgate begin in numbers to give merit aid, they will be able to attract some of the students who now come to Colgate and we may be forced to have merit aid."

President Neil Grabois acknowledges: "We are aware of the issue of merit aid all the time. It may be that as institutions not as strong as Colgate begin in numbers to give merit aid, they will be able to attract some of the students who now come to Colgate and we may be forced to have merit aid."

Scarce resources

The thought of squandering aid resources in a chase for merit is particularly sobering in light of the dramatic aid costs that colleges have encountered in the 1980s and ’90s. The money that Colgate allocates from its own resources to meet students’ need has grown nine-fold since 1981. In the same period, tuition increased approximately three-fold. In the ’90s alone, the college has more than doubled the amount of its own resources that it awards annually for student aid, while tuition has increased about 50 percent.

Financial aid statistics for the Class of 2001
Percent of students receiving scholarship aid from Colgate 35.5%
Average Colgate grant $17,800
Average total aid for students receiving Colgate scholarship $21,900
Percent of students receiving aid from all sources (Colgate, outside agencies, guaranteed student loans, or combination) 50%

A reduction in state support of students has compounded the leveling of federal aid programs while tuition has outpaced inflation. The convergence of those influences has forced colleges such as Colgate to increase their own support of aid in a spiral that no one believes can continue indefinitely.

A two-year study by the Commission on National Investment in Higher Education came to the central conclusion "that the present course of higher education — in which costs and demand are rising much faster than funding — is unsustainable." The commission, which was established by the Council for Aid to Education, recommended increased public funding of higher education and wide-ranging institutional reforms.

At risk in the future if those reforms are not achieved are lower and middle income families in particular. The college does what it can to help — "We aid more people than we did in the 1980s," says the financial vice president and treasurer, Elizabeth Eismeier — but the policy presents a growing demand on resources.

Colgate’s aid program is aimed at building a student body that represents many interests and talents. "We won’t be able to afford to continue that strategy unless our supporters continue to understand why student aid is a valuable investment to make," Eismeier said. She adds, "We recognize that not everybody we would like to enroll has the income to afford Colgate." She says, and Grabois concurs, that gifts for student aid are "the most important thing that donors can do for this college."

Endowment support

Presented with the hypothetical prospect of having $1 million to spend on bettering the college, Eismeier says, "I would invest the million in endowment for aid, so that need-based aid is sustainable over a long period of time.

"The role that liberal arts colleges have played in developing leaders for this country is threatened," she says. "Without support for aid we will not be able to select talented students who reflect society. Government, parents and the general public say they want our costs to be lower. Reducing our price or constraining our growth will squeeze our unrestricted resources. That means to me that if we are going to continue to offer the needed levels of aid over the long run we must attract more endowment support."

Campaign Colgate recognizes that need and has brought the college more than $25 million in gifts or pledges for student aid since the fundraising effort was launched five years ago. An anonymous gift is helping to bridge the gap as campaigners seek permanent funds to endow aid in the future. "We have surpassed our original goal of endowed funds to support aid," says campaign director and vice president Robert Tyburski ’74. "But the needs are so compelling that we are pushing beyond the goal with the hope of attracting significantly more endowment for aid before the campaign ends December 31."

Even as national proposals promise a measure of relief for families with students in college, the issue of merit aid will remain for the foreseeable future. Colleges such as Colgate that hew to the principles of aid based on need will be challenged to support the ambitions of students who will be entrusted with the leadership of the country. In that light, Grabois describes resources for financial aid as "a very carefully managed investment in the quality of the place — in the quality of our society."