Give or Feel Guilty

Syracuse claims that almost 400 of its students are at risk of not returning for the spring semester unless it can raise $2 million by the end of January.
December 10, 2008

In good times, colleges boast about the amazing successes of their graduates. These aren't good times -- and some colleges are raising the prospect of dropouts to get donations.

Syracuse University recently sent an appeal to alumni warning that approximately 400 students will be unable to return for the spring semester unless the institution can raise an additional $2 million in scholarship support by the end of January 2009.

The Syracuse Responds Initiative was launched last week following news that -- three months into the academic year -- the university had granted more appeals for institutional financial aid than all of last year. So far, the university has granted the appeals of 1,318 students, 202 more than the 1,116 students assisted through appeals last year -- a 29 percent growth in the number of appeals granted, with more than a semester ahead.

Sixty-nine percent of Syracuse students receive some sort of institutional aid, with an average financial aid award of $16,737. About 20 percent of its students are eligible for Pell Grants. Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, associate vice president for enrollment management and director of scholarships and financial aid, said the money raised in this latest campaign will more than likely go to benefit middle income students whose family contributions have decreased as a result of the current economic crisis.

Institutional figures estimate that the average cost of attendance is $47,820, with the cost of housing, meals, and additional expenses added to the $32,180 tuition. And while about two-thirds of students pay less than the sticker price, the average loan debt for students receiving financial aid is $22,000. Currently, the university offers about $155 million in institutional financial aid annually.

While many college officials say that they worry about student aid more now than before, most have been hesitant about naming some number of those who might be lost. An October study released by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities vaguely noted that the credit crunch was taking a toll on attendees of some private colleges.

For example, of the 500 colleges surveyed, 57 percent said that ten or more of their students reported that they could not secure a private loan for the current academic year. Still, despite dreary headlines that projected high dropout rates because of loan and other financial aid concerns, many institutions could not identify how many students might potentially be at risk. At that time, Inside Higher Ed's request to hear from officials at any individual colleges that had lost numbers of students received nary a response.

So why is Syracuse giving numbers? Brian Sischo, vice president and director of the Campaign for Syracuse University, said the institution was “projecting on an unknown" when stating that 400 students may be at risk of not returning for the spring semester.

The average need for students making an additional appeal for institutional aid, he said, was $5,000; the 400 figure was an estimate of how many students were still seeking more aid from the institution to make up for a lack in their family contribution or from other financial sources. A projected 400 students each requesting around $5,000 in aid made for a campaign goal of $2 million.

"It was helpful to approximate," said Ruth Kaplan, a Syracuse spokeswoman, of the number of students the university estimated might be at risk of not returning next semester. "The more information people have the better."

Instead of focusing on the approximate number, however, Sischo said it is more important to help as many students who may seek institutional aid as possible.

“Syracuse has maintained a generous financial aid portfolio in recent years,” Sischo said. “The family contribution puzzle is the part that’s been seeing much more pressure in recent months. The university has done what it can do within its own means. The reality here is we don’t know the number [who will seek aid]. But, we anticipate it to be incremental.”

Copeland-Morgan said those seeking this aid might not only be seeking it for expenditures for the upcoming semester but to pay off those remaining from this semester. Still, the sharp rise in the number of appeals for institutional aid has caught some at Syracuse off guard, she said, and has necessitated this campaign.

“Each year we have students who appeal [for aid] and that’s just the normal cycle,” Copeland-Morgan said. “We prepared to handle that level of appeals and a few more than that. This is a longstanding commitment. But this almost 30 percent spike in appeals, that’s not business as usual.”

The hoped-for $2 million, if raised, will remain in an account separate from the university’s regular institutional aid, she said, noting that many students are already making appeals for these funds. However, the money will not be strictly limited and directed to the hypothetical 400 who are considered “at risk” but instead will be available to all in financial straits.

Despite the call for immediate funds to help students, Copeland-Morgan maintained that she did not think that Syracuse’s financial troubles were “any worse than anyone else’s.” This campaign, she said, represents a circumstance where demand for aid exceeded the university’s expectation.

“It’s going to require significant effort from everyone to reach this fund raising goal in such a tight time frame,” Sischo observed in a press release. “What could be more important than ensuring our students can remain at [Syracuse] and earn their degrees?”

After university officials were questioned about the statistic cited, direct mentions of the potential 400 students at risk of not returning briefly disappeared from the Syracuse Responds Web site yesterday afternoon, but soon reappeared.

On the main page, a revised headline read, "GIVE NOW to Help SU Students Return to School this Spring," replacing the specific mention of "400 Students." On the FAQ page, the question of "Why $2 million?" and its answer -- "Approximately 400 current students will be unable to return to SU for the spring semester without additional support. We've determined that these students will need, on average, an additional $5,000, for a total of $2 million" -- also briefly disappeared.

Kaplan said she was unsure why these specific references disappeared and then reappeared on the Web site.

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