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Financial aid budget swells for fifth consecutive year

The undergraduate and graduate financial aid pool for the Class of 2022 climbed for the fifth year in a row – a trend that started six years ago.

Emily Recko | Graphics Editor

Source: Board of Trustees

The Board of Trustees approved a $315 million financial aid budget for undergraduate and graduate students at a meeting Friday – about $18 million more than last fiscal year. Officials said the roughly 6 percent jump will offset increased financial burden after the approval of a more expensive meal plan and the expiration of a federal loan program.

Financial aid experts said the University’s growing budget could be the result of an effort to rope in top candidates with the best financial bids so the University can become more academically competitive with other elite schools.

“We look very carefully at the data coming in and estimating the need,” Provost Forrest Maltzman said. “We see an increase in the financial need for undergraduate and graduate aid – that’s driving it.”

Last fiscal year, the financial aid budget swelled to $297 million, marking the highest one-year increase in the pool in recent history. This year’s budget will be the 12th time the pool has increased in 14 years, only falling twice in 2007 and 2013.

Maltzman said the budget expansion will help compensate for the increased cost of student dining plans, which officials voted to expand in February amid growing food affordability concerns. Under the new plan, dining dollars are wrapped into room and board fees, and students either receive $4,600 or $2,800 depending on whether or not they have a kitchen.

Maltzman added that the financial aid budget also grew to fill the gap created as students lost funding from the federal Perkins Loans program, which expired in September and is unlikely to be renewed by Congress. The expiration of the program, which lends federal dollars to universities for students with financial need, sparked fear among the roughly 2,300 students who rely on the funding to pay tuition bills.

“When you look at income disparity in this country, there is tremendous pressure on many universities on their financial aid budgets,” Maltzman said. “We won’t be immune from national threats.”

University President Thomas LeBlanc said that when officials draft the financial aid budget, they look at what factors affect student need each year and determine how much money the University can allocate to help alleviate extra costs.

“We’re not in a position to meet the full need of our students, but we certainly don’t want to exacerbate the situation if we can help it,” he said.

Nelson Carbonell, the Board’s chairman, said members of the Board convened in February to discuss what factors prevent students from enrolling at GW – determining that students would be more likely to matriculate if they were granted more aid.

The University’s cost of attendance rose to nearly $70,000 for next academic year – a roughly 4 percent jump from the year before.

“The challenge we’re continuing to wrestle with is accessibility to GW education,” Carbonell said in an interview. “I think it’s a national challenge for all universities to do that. Financial aid is a way to create more access.”

Higher education experts said that as universities grow their financial aid budgets, officials are likely making an effort to attract academically talented students who are deciding between several elite institutions.

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said that by upping the financial aid budget, the University could entice prospective students to choose GW over other competitive schools with a hefty financial aid package.

The University could also ease costs for students from low-income families who wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition without extra aid, he said.

“Giving additional grants probably won’t help that many more students actually apply, just because a lot of students get freaked out by the stereotype price,” Kelchen said. “But if you actually apply, then all of a sudden you might get a financial aid package that helps you be able to afford attending.”

Gabriel Serna, an assistant professor of liberal arts at Virginia Tech who has published research pertaining to financing higher education, said the University might be allocating more money toward its financial aid budget to allay concerns that the Trump administration is slashing federal loan programs.

“They’re pulling out some of the space guards, so that’s something students are more aware of now,” Serna said. “They’re probably more hesitant to borrow, so the increase in financial aid from the institution is one way to combat some of that fear.”

Kelly Hooper, Johnny Morreale and Parth Kotak contributed reporting.

This post has been updated to reflect the following clarification:
An earlier version of this article stated that the financial aid budget increased for the sixth year in a row. This is the fifth year the budget has increased, but the trend began six years ago.

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