For Students’ Extra Needs

Colleges start financial aid programs to cover extra costs students face, from a winter coat to computers.

February 7, 2022
(LIgorko/Getty Images)

Imagine that you are a new student at a college in New England. You were able to enroll because the college gave you a full financial aid package, covering tuition, room and board. But once classes start, you realize your laptop is old and not up to what the other students have. Or, a little later, in October, it starts to get cold, and you don’t have a good winter coat. For many students, this is a reality of college life. Maybe the student will skimp on buying books as a result or shiver in a coat meant for winter in Florida or Texas.

A few of the wealthiest colleges have programs to help.

Harvard University started a program of grants to students from families with incomes under $65,000—$1,000 at the start of the fall and spring semesters to cover things not covered by Harvard’s generous financial aid program. Williams College has a First Yard Program awarded to 20 percent of students so they can buy dorm room necessities, winter coats or boots. Many colleges also have a fund for students to seek help for extra expenses not covered by aid.

Today, Colby College is announcing grants of $1,250 to every new student whose family income is up to $65,000 for expenses not covered by financial aid. The college is not as wealthy as Harvard or Williams, but it is using a $3 million gift by two alumni, Nancy Greer Weiland and Andrew Weiland.

“I came from a family of seven, and when I got to campus, I had no spending money, or very minimal spending money. It was tough,” Nancy Weiland said. “It’s nice to give these kids financial aid to get them there, but once they get there, they have to be comfortable.”

Matt Proto, vice president and chief institutional advancement officer at Colby, said, “We recognize that our financial aid is one of the most comprehensive in the country,” but he said it doesn’t cover “unanticipated costs,” such as a winter coat, which can be essential for students at the Maine college.

He said the new fund will support between 80 and 100 students in each class.

“There’s a multiplier effect,” Proto said, when you think of the students, their families and future students who will enroll because they hear about the support they will receive.

Proto said he’s not worried about students spending the money inappropriately. “It’s the students’ money,” he said. Proto added that, among students in this income group, he has found that they are good at budgeting and know the value they will get from any purchase.

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He added that he thought the gift sent a great message to future students about why they should enroll at Colby.

Starting Expenses and Finishing Expenses

Smith College is another institution that recently started such a program—and more.

In October, the college announced a series of changes to financial aid. President Kathleen McCartney said the college knew many students had financial needs, and Smith wanted to use some of its endowment earnings to help. (Smith’s endowment is now over $2 billion.)

“We were having a good year and wanted to help students,” she said. The main policy change Smith made was a switch to replace loans with grants for all future students with financial need.

But she also thought about students’ other needs.

So, beginning with the fall 2022 semester, incoming undergraduates with an expected family contribution of less than $7,000, as determined by Smith, will receive one-time start-up grants of $1,000 in addition to their financial aid packages. Approximately 21 percent of students will qualify for these grants, which are intended to help students with expenses associated with starting college. The students will decide what to do with the money. “You know what your needs are,” McCartney said.

But Smith officials thought it also mattered what experience seniors would have as they leave for graduate school or a first job. McCartney remembered that when her daughter graduated from Wesleyan University, she moved back home for a few months. Her daughter got a good job and moved out after a few months, but for several months, she relied on McCartney for support. And McCartney realized that many students don’t have parents on whom they can rely for financial support for even a few months.

So for seniors with need-based financial aid graduating in January or May 2022, the college will offer one-time “launch grants” of $2,000 to help them with the costs of transitioning to life after college. The funds can help a student looking for or adjusting to a job, or for graduate school.

The costs of these programs aren’t huge, but the college needed to think about students and what they need.

McCartney said she spoke recently to a senior, and she expected to hear a complaint about how the switch from grants to loans came too late for her. But she said, “I’ve got $2,000 to help.”

To keep that program going, McCartney said she would need to raise more money, but she said she would gladly do so.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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