- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

James Violette took out a federally backed loan to attend Colby College last fall.

But next fall, his Perkins loan of $3,450 will be unnecessary as Colby, a private school in Waterville, Maine, will replace Perkins loans with grant money. The initiative eliminates all student loans, funding the difference between the expected family contribution and the total cost of attendance.

“This isn’t just for me. This is pretty huge for my family,” said Mr. Violette, 19, the eldest of six children.

Nearly 30 other private institutions in the United States have announced financial aid initiatives to alleviate student debt, starting next school year.

Many of these programs will cost at least $1 million, but increased financial aid budgets are normal for colleges and universities. In constant 2006 dollars, institutional grants for undergraduate students rose 85 percent, to nearly $20.6 billion, between the 1996-97 and 2006-07 school years, according to the College Board’s report “Trends in Student Aid 2007.”

Tony Pals, director of public information at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said Princeton University led the trend when it replaced loans with grants in 2001.

Initiatives at highly selective schools such as Harvard and Yale are helping poor and middle-class students pay for college, he said. Students at 29 of the 30 institutions with new financial aid programs face an average of nearly $45,700 in tuition, fees, room and board, according to “America’s Best Colleges 2008,” a survey by U.S. News & World Report.

The survey did not have information for the 30th school, Colby College, but the school’s Web site lists its 2007-08 price at $46,100, excluding books, personal expenses and travel.

“By launching these programs and publicizing them, I think they’ve also helped to get across the point that higher private education is still affordable to students of all backgrounds” Mr. Pals said.

The number of “very needy students” is “quite manageable” for highly selective universities with these financial aid initiatives, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of external relations at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. U.S. News & World Report described nearly all of the 30 colleges as “most selective.”

Colby College and other institutions are covering all financial aid regardless of income, but others are distinguishing by socioeconomic status:

c Cornell University announced in January that it will cover all financial aid for students from families earning less than $75,000 annually and require need-based loans of $3,000 per year for students from families earning between $75,000 and $120,000. The plan takes full effect in the 2009-10 school year.

c The California Institute of Technology limited its help to students from families earning less than $60,000 per year. The program will cost $350,000 annually, said Don Crewell, director of undergraduate financial aid at Caltech.

In constant 2007 dollars, the cost of college has risen dramatically in the past 30 years, more than doubling among four-year private schools and nearly doubling among four-year public schools, according to the College Board’s “Trends in College Pricing 2007.”

Institutions such as Caltech, Cornell and Colby are responding to concern among parents and students about the price of college, Mr. Pals said.

“They’re increasingly concerned about their ability to attend and afford the institution that best fits their needs,” he said.

Colby’s financial aid initiative “cements my decision and makes me sure I won’t be transferring,” Mr. Violette said. After a year studying in Switzerland, he applied to 14 schools and chose Colby because it offered the best financial aid package, he said.

Mr. Violette took out the Perkins loan in his own name to pay for college, said Jay Violette, his father.

The freshman history major also washes dishes at a Mexican restaurant, tutors third-graders and holds two jobs at Colby. Jay Violette said his son uses part of the income from his dishwashing job for spending money.

Growth in university endowments has allowed schools to implement these initiatives, Mr. Pals said.

Between July 1, 2006, and June 30, 2007, Colby’s endowment grew 24 percent to a Web-reported $598,729,000, said Stephen Collins, the college’s director of communications.

Harvard University, with an endowment worth nearly $35 billion on June 30, announced its program in December. Mr. Pals said that initiative added competitive pressure and gave “other institutions reasons to re-evaluate their tuition and student aid policies.”

“When an institution like Harvard does something, it gets a lot of attention in the media and higher education,” he said.

Colby College — with a student population 3.6 times smaller than Harvard’s, according to “America’s Best Colleges 2008” — considered comparative schools such as Amherst College in Massachusetts and Bowdoin College in Maine when expanding its financial aid program, Mr. Collins said. All three schools have student populations below 2,000, according to the study by U.S. News & World Report.

The financial aid initiative was “the right thing to do,” Mr. Collins said.

Smaller endowments keep other private institutions from adopting similar financial aid programs, but these schools have helped students in other ways, Mr. Pals said.

Alliant International University, a small school in California with an endowment of less than $2 million, cut tuition rates this year. Blackburn College in Illinois and Warner Pacific College in Oregon will lower tuition rates next year.

Similar efforts aim “to keep out-of-pocket costs as low as they can for students and parents,” Mr. Pals said.

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