Financial Aid: Defining the Partnership

University is bolstering its commitment to need-based aid

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Much as he might wish otherwise, Student Financial Strategies Director Bernard Pekala has found himself in recent months as a kind of benevolent avatar for college financial aid.

Student Financial Strategies Director Bernard Pekala.
In a New York Times article last month, Pekala discussed how Boston College seeks to accommodate families struggling to pay tuition in the midst of a recession. Last fall, US News and World Report recounted how an incoming BC freshman had written to ask for more financial aid to offset her unusual family circumstances. The student got additional aid, but as Pekala pointed out in the story, it was the amount she would have received if his office had only been given the information earlier.

It's not that he minds offering insights into his profession or explaining BC's financial aid policies and guidelines. With BC committing more resources to financial aid, Pekala simply wants it understood that the University's financial aid process is the work of many.

"Financial aid is not one guy sitting in his office with a rubber stamp," said Pekala in a recent interview. "There are plenty of others who have a role in shaping the process. For example, we have about a dozen financial aid officers who work closely with students and their families, not just for their freshman year but all throughout their time at BC. They're very dedicated and work long hours doing a tough job. Faculty, deans and staff also play a vital role in referring students with financial concerns to us for assistance.

"I like to call the financial aid process a partnership between the student, the family and BC. There has to be good communication and understanding on all sides.

"We in the financial aid profession don't have divine intervention or a crystal ball at our disposal, just common sense. We have to gauge which factors are within a family's control, and which are not - major medical expenses, for instance.

"But we also have to determine whether the family has done everything they can on the financial end to prepare for college. That's where the partnership comes in: We expect the student to work part-time and the family to borrow, and we - along with the state and federal government - will do all we can."

An increased commitment to financial aid was a major factor in BC's emergence as a national Catholic institution. But the "partnership" to which Pekala refers is another important stage in its evolution, administrators say.

"The view of BC for a long time was that however strong we might be in academics and student formation, we were a place unable to assist deserving needy families to any significant degree," said Dean for Enrollment Management Robert Lay.

"We've been working hard to change this image and to be a place that families see as accessible. When a prospective student is sorting his or her college options, we want them to be sure to consider BC on its academic merits."

Since 1991, Boston College has increased its need-based financial aid spending by 274 percent. The University is now able to meet virtually 100 percent of undergraduates' demonstrated financial aid eligibility, compared to 80 percent eight years ago. The average annual grant for all aid-eligible students is $13,300, an amount administrators say is competitive with many top universities.

In December, the University announced a firm guarantee to meet the full demonstrated financial eligibility of incoming freshmen for all four years at Boston College. The guarantee is designed to assure all families that they will receive continued support if they encounter unexpected financial difficulties.

Another significant move for BC, administrators say, was joining the 568 Presidents' Working Group, a group of elite American colleges and universities seeking to promote understanding and strengthen support for need-based financial aid.

Lay says the 568 group - which includes Cornell, Duke, Yale and Stanford universities, as well as the University of Notre Dame and Amherst, Dartmouth and Wellesley colleges - seeks a national consensus on the standards of fairness for assessing family financial need.

"Recent public policy studies have stressed the importance of ensuring access for able students," he said. "There has been some erosion of this access during the past 10 to 15 years, owing to changes in federal and state student aid funding and in higher education itself.

"This is a real opportunity for BC to play a leadership role in need-based aid," Lay added. "When you consider where BC was only 30 years ago, as a school with an uncertain financial future, it's quite amazing now to be accepted to join such a distinguished group. That's partly a testimony to the work in needs analysis Bernie has done, and certainly an endorsement of BC's commitment to access."

BC began buttressing its support of need-based aid more than a decade ago, administrators say. "Access to education, regardless of ability to pay, is a policy that fits in with our mission, as well as our history as a school," said Pekala.

The need-based approach also made more sense given the increasing quality of the BC undergraduate population, Lay said: "The point is, how can we award aid by merit when we can legitimately say all of our students are excellent?"

But the need-based philosophy carries certain demands for a university's financial aid personnel. "A financial aid officer has to be analytical, an excellent listener and a 'people person,'" said Pekala. "It can be a real roller-coaster ride, because even when you have a good working relationship with a family you have to be able to tell them news they won't like.

"There's a bigger picture, of course. If you make it too easy financially for one student, that will only make it more difficult for BC to fund other needy students."

Pekala lauds students and families who do their financial aid homework and scrutinize their options in the college application process. Yet in the end, he says, the student and the institution have to match up in more than just dollars.

"I don't think that schools should be looking for a student to choose them based solely on the 'discount' he or she might get," he said. "We want students who really want to be here, who see Boston College as the place which is going to help them grow intellectually and spiritually. If the fit is there, we want them to see us as willing to help ease the financial aspect of their college experience."


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