University to boost financial aid in response to economy

The University plans to add millions of dollars to financial aid for continuing students and provide extra accommodations for families having trouble paying for GW during the economic crisis, senior administrators said last week.

Ensuring that students can afford to stay at GW should be the University’s top priority, said Robert Chernak, senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services. He said bolstering grant money by at least $8 million is not only necessary to maintain the University’s retention rate, but it is also “the right thing to do.” This year, $118 million was allocated for financial aid grants, and Chernak said the $8 million increase was a conservative estimate.

“In my opinion, when a student makes a commitment in good faith to attend GW and they encounter financial stress, this institution needs to step up and help,” Chernak said. “We’re sort of in unplowed territory here because this is a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. But we have to take care of our people.”

Students and families with a drastic change in their financial situation – such as a recent job loss, death or serious illness in the family – will be considered for aid on a case-by-case basis, but officials said they worry the emergency funds will not be enough given the scale of the economic crisis.

Before the University can add to financial aid, they will need the approval of the Board of Trustees. The board, which meets later this week, will be presented with a revised budget plan to increase financial aid for both continuing and incoming students.

The plan, however, may not get support from the board and could need revision.

“There may be some members of the board who think ($8 million) is too conservative of an estimate,” Chernak said. “Others might think it’s too dramatic of a jolt and think we don’t need a knee-jerk reaction.”

Students could be eligible to receive need-based financial aid even if they did not qualify for need-based funds when they applied to the University. Those already receiving aid may also be considered for additional help.

“Don’t make presumptions we can’t help you,” Chernak said. “If this is where students want to get their degree, we are going to make every effort to make sure they can stay at GW.”

Dan Small, the executive director of financial assistance, said his office has already received a slight increase in the number of calls from previous years, but added that the full effect of the crisis is yet to be seen.

“My feeling is that people are evaluating right now,” Small said. “They are looking at themselves and asking, ‘Where are we? Where will we be in a couple of months?’ “

He said members of his office will be available throughout Colonials Weekend to answer questions from parents who are worried about continuing to finance a GW education.

“Number one goal is help families work together so the child can stay here and graduate,” Small said. “Some might not need grants, but are still worried. We can talk to them about all the options: loans, monthly payment plans, finding good interest rates.”

He added, “Ninety percent or more of the time, we will work it out.”

Supporting GW’s continuing students is vital for multiple reasons, administrators said.

“Our number one recruitment strategy is treating current students fairly,” Chernak said. “It does not make sense to recruit new students and leave our current and continuing students out to dry.”

Chernak, who oversees the admissions department, predicted the admissions marketplace will not be favorable to colleges who do not support their students and that GW’s reputation as an expensive school makes the emergency aid money even more necessary.

“We want students to go back to their communities and be able to say, ‘Don’t be scared of the price; this is the kind of school that will stick with you,’ ” Chernak said.

Chernak, who has been at GW for 21 years, said he will personally reach out to ask for donations toward scholarships and grants.

“I’m going to talk to people and say, ‘We need your help and we need it now,’ ” Chernak said. “I have a lot of people I’ve had relationships with and it’s time to go back to people who have ability to help.”

Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz said he anticipates the University will have to allocate additional funds toward scholarships and grants for years to come.

“No one knows exactly what’s going to happen,” Katz said. “But I can already tell there will be a several-year window where we need to put more money into financial aid.”

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