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Presidential Q&A

The Magazine continues a series of interviews with University President Robert J. Zimmer. This issue’s topic: financial aid.

photo: Presidential Q&AIn your inaugural address you enumerated key questions facing the University. Several concerned financial aid for graduate and undergraduate students. How do the challenges for the two groups differ?

In both instances, the purposes are to ensure that the student body is comprised of those students who can best contribute to and benefit from the intellectually rich and intense culture that characterizes the University. Our ability to make it possible for students to attend, independent of their personal financial situations, is key to achieving this goal.

With these commonalities, nevertheless, we have specific challenges. Within the College, our aid program is generally competitive with our peers’, and almost half of our students receive financial aid. There are two main challenges. First, much of our financial-aid support is based on discretionary University resources. We need to endow a much greater portion of this financial-aid allocation to ensure the same type of commitment for the future. Second, we want to enhance our financial-aid offerings by reaching more effectively the talented students who come from environments that may not encourage them to think about applying to Chicago or other elite private institutions, but who would flourish and contribute here. Many of these students will require considerable financial-aid support.

Within the graduate programs, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, our financial-support programs are very uneven. Some offers are competitive; others are not. We have undertaken an analysis of this situation, working with the relevant deans and the Provost’s Office, and are putting a plan in place to address the problem quickly and aggressively. Competitive graduate support is much too important for the fabric of the University’s culture to allow the current situation to continue. It will be a major initiative that we hope to launch imminently.

You cochaired a 1995 committee on Chicago’s graduate and undergraduate education that called for making the University’s financial-aid programs more competitive with those of peer institutions. Has progress been made in the past decade?

We have made considerable progress in the College and some of the professional schools, as well as with our most competitive offers to doctoral students. However, as I have indicated, considerable challenges remain. Financial aid is a complex mix. For college students one needs to balance outright grants, loans, work expectations, and family contributions.  For graduate students one needs to consider tuition grants, stipends, health insurance, family-leave policy, summer support, and other issues. As with our peer institutions, we are continually seeking the right balance, to do more when we are able, and to respond to the changing societal context. It will always be a somewhat complex and evolving area. But the fundamental importance to us is simple—it is essential that we do it and do it effectively for our students and competitively with our peers.

In 2004–05 almost 50 percent of Chicago undergrads received financial aid, but only 12.2 percent received Pell Grants, federal grants for low-income families. It’s said that the more selective an institution, the more affluent its student body. As the College attracts more applicants—and becomes more selective—how will it strengthen economic diversity?

We will do so in two essential ways. First, we will work in the College Admissions Office to reach a broader set of students. This is an important task for all universities, and at Chicago we intend to pursue it with vigor. Second, such a commitment demands increasing our funding for financial aid. This needs to be among the high priorities for fund-raising throughout the University community. The commitment of funds we already make to financial aid is massive. But we need to do yet more, and so we need to raise funds for it.

Should Chicago follow Princeton’s lead and offer no-loan, pure-grant programs to undergrads from low-income families?

Because of the complexity of financial aid, there are a host of ways to improve financial-aid programs. We will continue to seek ways to improve financial aid, but they may or may not be the same route that others take. For example, given the challenging nature of our curriculum, we are working hard to make some preparatory academic experiences available beforehand for talented incoming students, most on financial aid, who may derive particular benefit from such experiences because of their high-school environments. For Chicago, we believe this is an important step. Each university will find its own way, reflecting its program and situation.

How much will increasing Chicago’s financial-aid programs cost the University? How will it fund those increases?

It will be an ongoing process. We can only commit what we can afford at any time, but we need to be aggressive about understanding what we can afford. There are only two ways to do this. We can commit more funds within our usual budgeting process, which we will do now because we believe it is such a high priority. And we can raise money from our alumni and friends. It is essential that we raise such funds on a large scale, both to ensure the commitments we make for the future and to expand our capacity to do more in financial aid—as we must.