University gives less in merit aid

The University refocused part of its financial aid pool toward students with demonstrated economic need in 2010, a change that cut into monies for academic, athletic and other performance-based scholarships.

In the 2009 to 2010 academic year, the last year that data is available for, 12.8 percent of aid was merit-based – awarded to students who did not demonstrate need in federal and institutional financial assessments. Last year, that number slipped to 9.6 percent, or $14.4 million.

The shift follows a nationwide trend to pare down merit aid to expand the need-based pool as students struggle to pay for college in a tough economy, according to a senior analyst at College Board.

After the Board of Trustees approved a $7 million increase to the aid fund, the change represents a $4 million drop in merit aid and an increase of about $11 million in need-based awards. The figures provided do not include athletic scholarships due to the bookkeeping practices of the University, spokeswoman Jill Sankey said.

This year’s merit aid pool is likely in last year’s range, although that data have not yet been reported, Associate Vice President for Financial Assistance Dan Small said. The University’s internal financial aid pool stands at $159 million, up from $85 million in the 2003 to 2004 academic year to meet the rising needs of students.

The University’s shift toward need-based aid comes as the Class of 2015 demonstrated significantly greater financial need, with an average family contribution totaling 77 percent of tuition, compared to 85 percent of tuition for the Class of 2014.

College Board senior analyst Sandy Baum said merit aid has increased significantly in the past decade – a figure that topped about $5.3 billion last year.

“If you look 10 to 15 years in the past, I think you will see a substantial increase in merit funds,” Baum said. “[Today], I think it’s too high.”

Baum, who also serves as a senior fellow at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, noted a correlation between income levels and academic achievement that makes wealthier students more likely to get unneeded merit awards.

“Students from high-income families are more likely to go to more selective institutions, which tend to have larger endowments. This allows them to give more merit aid,” Baum said.

She concluded that “often [merit aid] goes to people who don’t need it.”

GW remains a need-blind institution in that it does not consider the ability of prospective students to pay tuition without financial aid when making admissions decisions.

While many universities have shifted toward need-based awards, experts continue to question giving merit aid while other students’ need isn’t fully met.

Small estimated that the University meets between 94 and 96 percent of the average student’s demonstrated need through a combination of institutional money, federal funding and loans. He added that merit aid is generally awarded to students before his office reviews financial aid forms.

“Unfortunately, GW has never had the resources of meeting everybody’s need 100 percent,” Small said.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.