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Even the most accomplished students often choose not to apply to the Ivy Leagues because they assume it would be cost prohibitive. Supporting their pessimism is the recent upheaval in the economy and tightening down on credit, causing experts to predict that student loans may be harder to get. At the same time, college tuition increases annually at two or three times the rate of inflation. CNN Money reported in August of 2008 that tuition has increased 439% over 20 years.
For the uninformed, the educational horizon could seem bleak. But college hopefuls take heart; now there are more opportunities than ever to get a college education without facing burdensome student loans in the process. Finding and accessing the available funds, however, can present a daunting barrier for those who do not know where to start.
Scholarships totaling over $24 billion are available each year through universities, foundations and civic organizations. Students should first study the website of their preferred schools to find out the scholarships available, noting if a school nomination is necessary or if the student can apply for the scholarship directly. Most school districts have a list of locally available scholarships posted on the district’s website. Scholarship database websites such as FastWeb.com and Scholarships.com allow the user to create a profile to match the student’s interests and qualifications to possible scholarships. There is never a need for a scholarship search site to require a student’s social security number or financial account information. (If a site requests information that could be used in identity theft, the student should exit the site immediately.)
Adding to the pool of available funds, most of the Ivy League schools have recently initiated plans that cover tuition, and in certain cases, room and board expenses, for all four years. As a result, other prominent schools have duplicated these programs. Harvard, Yale, Brown, Stanford, Cornell and Princeton have announced programs geared to eradicate student loans and minimize or eliminate tuition and fees based on financial need.
To take advantage of these new programs, a student must first apply for admission to his or her school of choice. The schools noted above typically claim a “need blind” admission policy, which considers all applications for admission without knowledge of financial need. Once a student is admitted, the school then applies a tuition policy based on the student’s family income. For example, at Harvard a family income of less than $120,000 will net a student free tuition for all four years. If the family income is less than $60,000, room and board are also included. Families earning $120,000 to $180,000 will see tuition capped at no more than 10% of their annual income. (Note: With the recent stock market decline, the specific income level requirements may change at each university’s discretion.)
Other prominent schools have introduced similar need-blind admission programs. Stanford and Yale have announced sliding-scale tuition waivers for students with family incomes between $60,000 and $200,000. Families earning less than $60,000 will incur no tuition costs. Brown University announced in early 2008 that it would also waive tuition for all students with family incomes less than $60,000 and substitute grants for loans for families with incomes between $60,000 and $100,000.
Ivy League schools and other heavily endowed private schools have gradually increased financial aid offerings over the last five years but only in the last two years have they implemented sweeping tuition waivers and no-loan policies. As to the driving force behind the changes, the universities cite a desire to make education accessible and affordable to a greater percentage of the population but there has also been some governmental influence behind these decisions as well. Universities with endowments over $1 billion have encountered mounting pressure from the Senate Finance Committee to pay out 5% of their endowments in the form of scholarships or grants to students. NPR reports that Harvard’s endowment is currently around $34.6 billion.
Students hoping to take advantage of the Ivy League “free tuition” offerings need to apply themselves wholeheartedly throughout their high school careers to maximize their chances of admission. Applicants with superior grades, high SAT’s (between 1400-1600), community service, athletic experience and leadership roles stand the best chance of admission. Harvard reports only a 10% acceptance rate each year from its pool of applicants.
Students should also check the websites for each school on their “wish list” to research which standardized tests are required in order to be considered for admission. For example, Harvard requires not only the standard SAT but also three Subject SAT tests of the applicant’s choosing. Yale requires the SAT with two SAT subject tests or the ACT with the ACT Writing Test. Students must take the necessary standardized tests by November of their senior year if they wish to be eligible for early action.
Students whose academic records fall short of Ivy League standards are not left without options. Policies for waiving tuition and eliminating loans have “trickled down” from the Ivy League trendsetters to many smaller private schools; making affordable education available to even more students with modest family incomes. Williams College (ranked #1 in the country by Forbes rankings), Duke, Vanderbilt and many others all promise to meet all of the unmet financial need a student presents without resorting to student loans. Prestigious Davidson College, a highly selective private college in Davidson, NC was one of the smallest colleges to adopt a similar policy. Davidson claims that in 2007 it was the first national liberal arts college to eliminate student loans from its financial aid packages. Tuition and fees to Davidson College exceed $42,000. Once it is determined what a family can afford to put towards tuition and fees, all of the remaining costs are covered through grants and student employment. Davidson is not alone; many selective private schools have similar policies. As students make application to their colleges of choice, they should ask each financial aid officer if their institution has similar need-based policies in place.
Thanks to these aggressive new policies, students from all economic backgrounds can gain access to the best educational opportunities in the nation. Even in the midst of a faltering economy, with the right preparation, hard work and research, good students have more reasons than ever to be hopeful and aim high.