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Out of the Money

April 10, 2008

Few announcements are more joyous for colleges to share than expansions of aid packages or loan forgiveness programs. But for all of the adulation, there can be another side -- students, or in some cases alumni, who feel that they've been left behind.

That's the case at Columbia University and the University of Chicago, where two such financial announcements have been widely praised but remain perplexing to those who won't directly benefit from some of the changes.

Colleges often face tough choices about how to lure students without spending beyond their means, and officials at Columbia and Chicago say their institutions are doing what they can to expand opportunity for everyone. Critics in both cases say the colleges could afford to do more.

Columbia University's School of Law recently announced changes to its 25-year-old Loan Repayment Assistance Program that helps graduates going into public interest or public service careers. Graduates borrow money from the law school to pay their student loans. If they work long enough in public interest jobs, the law school forgives the debt.

In the past, benefits began to phase out once a person's income level exceeds $25,000 per year. Under the revamped program, the income threshold is $50,000 for students who graduate in 2008 or later. (The university says that is the highest threshold of any such program in the country.)

Some alumni are upset that the changes don't apply to them, and members of a group have written a letter asking the university reconsider its decision.

“It’s unfair," said Grainne O'Neill, a 2007 Columbia graduate and public interest lawyer who takes part in the existing program and says she has hundreds of thousands of dollars in law school loans to repay. "When I came to Columbia I expected changes would be made to the program that would affect me. When I entered public interest I thought in the back of my head that I'd be getting more money. Now it seems that after I graduated that's been pulled from under me."

O'Neill said Columbia shouldn't have a problem coming up with the money to expand the $50,000 threshold to all of its graduates who have been eligible.

Suzanne Goldberg, a clinical professor of law and chair of the public interest faculty committee at Columbia, said it's typical for changes in higher education to apply only to current and future students.

"As is always true, choices have to be made about how to structure changes to a program," Goldberg said. "When a university improves its loan program or financial aid packages for incoming students, that reflects a choice in a world where means aren't endless."

Goldberg argues that the law school's changes will enhance the reputation of the school and thus indirectly benefit all graduates. She also points to recent changes that apply across the board. For instance, loans will be forgiven more quickly, and in calculating a graduate's household income, the university will make an adjustment for the spouse's educational debt. There's also a new policy regarding parental leave and benefits for graduates working part time to care for children.

At the University of Chicago, the conversation centers around graduate student funding. More than a year ago, Robert J. Zimmer, Chicago's president, announced a six-year, $50 million Graduate Aid Initiative meant to improve the financial situation for students in the social sciences and humanities.

As was reported by Chicago last year, a typical base aid package for incoming graduate students was five-year support that includes tuition, health insurance, a $19,000 stipend per year to cover living expenses, and two summers of research support at $3,000 per summer. Zimmer said he expected the aid to help shorten the amount of time students take to complete a Ph.D.

As part of the program, $1.5 million was set aside for current doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences for health insurance packages.

Erica Simmons, a third-year political science Ph.D. student and graduate student liaison to Chicago's Board of Trustees, said that while she was excited to see the university recognize the need to improve graduate student support, she couldn't help but feel slighted by the university.

“There's a sense of betrayal when all of the incoming students are offered these packages," she said. "We signed on with the implicit understanding that the university can’t do any better. Now all of a sudden you're saying we can do better."

Simmons said the situation is unfair for students in their second year or beyond because they will likely be competing for jobs with the current first-year students who are better funded and might be able to finish their Ph.D.'s quicker.

In response to the concerns of students like Simmons, and following the recommendations of a working group created last year, Chicago eventually decided on revised aid policies for current students who didn't benefit directly from some of the 2007 changes. The new changes include expanding the initiative to include doctoral students in the Divinity School, and increasing the number of summer fellowships and dissertation-year fellowships.

Academic divisions were also given the option of reducing the full-package, five-year offers to new students for the 2008-9 academic year in exchange for additional money to be dispersed to current doctoral students not covered under the Graduate Aid Initiative.

Some departments are bringing third- and fourth-year students and first-year advanced-residency students up to a minimum support level of $15,000, and the university said it is devoting nearly $1 million to increase these stipends.

"It is our hope that this supplementary assistance, along with the other actions, also will help to lessen the time to degree for some of our current students," Chicago says in a news release.

Because Chicago's graduate school is decentralized and the funding decisions largely rest with department leaders, Simmons said Chicago should do more to force those leaders' hands -- or find more money itself. She said that while she appreciates the effort to add dissertation-year fellowships and extra summer fellowships, it's still a large number of students fighting for a small number of awards. Those students, she said, remain at a competitive disadvantage.

University calculations show that it would cost roughly $23 million over the next three years to include students now in years two and up who would have qualified for the aid package announced last year (a $40 million cost if one includes this year.)

Cathy J. Cohen, deputy provost for graduate education, said the university is committed to doing what it can to support all of its students. "There was a clear need to raise stipends and recruit the best students," she said. "Given what was possible in the budget, there wasn't $40 million to designate, but we wanted to respond in some way."

Chicago is paying for these programs with a combination of current resources and fund raising efforts.

 

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