Payment Plan

Financial aid is growing at twice the rate of tuition as BC pursues its goal of providing help to all in need

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Boston College has more than doubled its spending on undergraduate financial aid since 1991, a rate more than twice that of the increase in tuition during the same period, University administrators say, and is meeting far more of students' financial needs.

In addition to strengthening resources, administrators said, the University utilizes several financial aid policies that work to the advantage of many Boston College families, and is streamlining the financial aid application procedure. The extent of the University's financial aid services is on par with, and in some cases exceeds, those of other highly selective institutions, they said.

The support for financial aid is an important context in which to view recent tuition and budget figures, the administrators said, as well as University initiatives such as Project Delta and the $260 million investment in academic programs.

Dean for Enrollment Management Robert Lay (left) and Financial Aid Director Bernard Pekala. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
"Financial aid is a complex, often volatile issue," said Financial Aid Director Bernard Pekala, who serves on a national advisory group on financial aid to the College Scholarship Service. "It is not an exact science. That's why we give such personalized attention to students and their families, from the time they apply to BC right through graduation. We also continuously seek to develop ways of offering financial aid that is competitive and appropriate for a university of our profile."

"A college or university's approach to financial aid should mirror its values," said Dean for Enrollment Management Robert Lay. "Boston College sees financial aid as part of a social contract of the Jesuit-Catholic educational institution. Our feeling is that BC provides the type of high-quality education that merits some sacrifice. Financial aid distributes that sacrifice among families as fairly and reasonably as possible.

"Boston College is strongly committed to a student population that is economically as well as culturally diverse," Lay said.

This commitment is reflected in the University's expenditures on financial aid this decade, Lay and Pekala said. From 1991-97, Boston College increased its financial aid spending by 109 percent, compared to the approximate 48 percent rise in tuition during that time.

Furthermore, they said, Boston College is completing the first phase of a two-stage plan to augment financial aid, which entailed adding $1 million annually over four years to undergraduate financial aid, on top of regular budgetary increases. With additional funding for graduate students, the overall financial aid budget will reach an unprecedented $65.5 million next year.

The goal for the second phase of this plan is expected to require an additional commitment of $6 million to $8 million. The initiative would enable BC to pursue its goal of meeting 100 percent of students' demonstrated financial aid eligibility. Pekala notes the University currently meets over 95 percent of eligibility, up from 80 percent five years ago.

Boston College has long maintained a "need-blind" approach to admission, even when it could not offer sufficient financial support to many admitted students. Pekala and Lay point out that financial aid "eligibility" - based on student and family financial records - has always been based upon an equitable analysis of a family's relative financial strength. The method of assessing eligibility typically raises questions and concerns among families.

"It's not an easy call when it comes to family lifestyle choices," Lay said. "Let's say you have a family with a large credit card debt: Is it because they are dealing with serious health issues, or because they did not plan at all for the large expense of sending a child to a private university? BC's position is not to make a judgment, but to do a confidential review of each family's unique financial situation."

The University also is making more of an effort to address financial needs among the best students, Lay and Pekala noted, pointing to the establishment of the Trustee Achievement Grant Program several years ago to reward highly successful seniors and help reduce the need to assume more debt at graduation. BC also will increase funding for the Undergraduate Faculty Research Fellows Program - which enables students to receive stipends while assisting faculty in research activities - and the Presidential Scholars Program.

BC uses other, more indirect ways of reducing the economic burden of college costs, administrators say. When it evaluates assets, for example, the University usually disregards any home equity that exceeds three times the family income - thereby reducing reliance upon the home as a resource - and considers siblings' private and religious secondary school expenses.

Some of these practices have been announced recently by other elite colleges and universities, Lay noted, while "BC has quietly added progressive policies over the years."

Project Delta also should have a positive impact, he added, by introducing easy access to information, new personal financial planning tools and service improvements.

"Above all else, BC does not take a cookie-cutter approach to financial aid," Pekala said. "We recognize a family's circumstances can change dramatically during the college years, and we make every effort to assist them."

Return to March 12 menu

Return to Chronicle home page