Colleges debate use of grants compared to loans for financial aid packages

By Colleen Good

Macalester will not be changing its financial aid process in response to the recent alterations made by various Ivy League institutions, Brian Lindeman, director of financial aid, said.Harvard University set the precedent for other institutions to increase their financial aid offerings by replacing all loan awards with grants. Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and Swarthmore were among the schools that followed en suit, also substituting their student loan offerings with grants.

Competition between Ivy League institutions for the best financial aid packages has been an ongoing battle for years. In 1997, a similar financial aid “race” took place between Princeton, Yale, Harvard and other comparable institutions.

All of the institutions that have made the switch to an all-grant system are in the top tier financially. In a study conducted by National Association of College and University Business Officers, Harvard’s endowment was listed as $34,634,906,000, ranking them first out of 785 colleges and universities in endowment size.

Macalester, with an endowment of $675,987,000, was listed at 109. And while Macalester’s financial aid budget for the 2007-08 school year is $26,737,000, Harvard College plans on increasing its financial aid budget from $98 million to $120 million next year.

Lindeman said that when considering Macalester’s and Harvard’s financial aid packages, it is important to take into account the differences in financial background between the different student bodies. While only a little more than half of Harvard students receive financial aid, two-thirds of Macalester students qualify for need-based aid, with around 70 percent of Macalester students receiving aid overall.

“I think the financial profile of our student body is, and has been, much more diverse than the schools in the headlines,” Lindeman said. “The truth is Macalester has been challenged to continue to fund its financial aid budget, even without considering changes.”

These economic differences affect the respective percentages of students applying for aid at the two institutions. While Harvard typically compares itself to other Ivy League institutions, Macalester looks to a different group of peer schools. Within this peer group of 40 institutions, Macalester College is sixth highest in the number of students filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, Lindeman said.

The past 10 years have seen a pretty steady financial diversification within the Macalester student body. There have been changes, however. In 1983 the percentage of Macalester students qualifying for need-based Pell grants was much greater than today, he said. Macalester’s selectivity has also increased a lot in the past 25 years.

“Whether we like it or not, the realities of being a selective institution is having a wealthier student body,” Lindeman said.

Lindeman said, however, that the institutional philosophy behind Macalester’s financial aid program has not changed because “Macalester has always placed a high value on making it possible for students of different backgrounds to come here.