Questioning financial aid

Approximately one year ago on Nov. 9, 2011, I wrote an open letter in the Minnesota Daily to the then provost and vice provost for undergraduate education expressing concern about the seeming lack of strategic plan for access and success of low-income students. In the letter, I provided national data on how the University of Minnesota stands against other peer institutions on access, affordability, choice and graduation rates of low-income students. The data was not favorable toward the University’s reputation. I write again as a concerned alumnus and tax payer with the same concerns.

Looking at the same national data sources one year later, not much has changed. In fact, looking at additional national data sources, the University is now on another list of underperformers for graduating low-income
students.

Recently, U.S. News and World Report has listed the Twin Cities campus as one of the worst performers of all national universities and/or peer institutions on graduating low-income students. This is consistent with the findings of Washington Post, ForbesCenter for College Affordability and Productivity and other national sources. One could argue that one year does not make a trend. My response is simple: What is the percentage of increase of institutional merit-based aid compared to institutional need-based grants over the past five years? Further, how has the overall average income of families receiving institutional aid changed over the past five years? The answers are clear.

Merit-aid has substantially grown along with the average family income at the University. Given the trend over the five years, I now know the strategy is clear: Encourage the wealthy, discourage the poor. This is hardly consistent with the land-grant mission that was founded on broad access for the working poor.

The University’s decisions and behaviors that disenfranchise low-income students seem to be purposeful and strategic. I am optimistic that the University will change direction not because it will want to but because it will be forced to. More and more national rankings and data centers will highlight universities that are failing low-income students. State and federal governments will increase efforts to hold universities accountable through performance-based funding for both access and success of low-income students. Collectively, these trends will impact the University’s bottom line, forcing the needed change. It might be wise for the University to consider this now and ask itself if the correct leadership is in place to change strategy, swiftly.

I received criticism for asking the questions and the tone in which I asked in my letter a year ago. I make no apologies for either. Ask the administration these difficult questions, and when they answer, ask to see the data and the strategic plan.