Professor re-evaluates financial aid

Posted by Sandy Zhang

A recent study conducted by Sandy Baum, professor emerita of economics, found that in many public institutions, financial aid is often used as a means to influence accepted students' decisions instead of a means to provide low-and moderate-income students an opportunity to attend college.

Baum is in the midst of critical work on the intersection of college endowments, financial aid and student enrollment. Her work explores the increasingly competitive college admissions process and looks for ways to ease the level of competition.

One of the primary goals of her research is to find ways to diminish financial barriers (also known as barriers to access) that prevent many students from attending college.

The most recent study on institutional aid patterns shows that in public colleges and universities, about 50 percent of financial aid goes toward students who need the funds, while the rest are used to sway students' decisions to enroll.

For example, an accepted student able to afford the tuition with high SAT scores will be awarded aid (often called a scholarship) simply because of his or her high scores, according to Baum.

Baum has also recently begun exploring ways to relieve the competitive admissions process. One of her proposed solutions for decreasing the intense level of competition for acceptance in prestigious institutions is to increase enrollment.

Baum says that considering the hefty endowments of prestigious colleges, they should be able to enroll significantly more students without sacrificing the quality of the educations they offer.

"If [the wealthiest, most selective colleges] were to increase the size of their undergraduate student bodies by some percentage, say half, virtually all of them would still be at the top of the list of institutions ranked by wealth per student, and their admissions queues would still be out the door," said Baum in a statement with her research partner Michael McPherson. McPherson is president of the Spencer Foundation, which provides grants for educational improvement research.

Baum started researching financial aid about 25 years ago, just before she joined the Skidmore faculty in 1987.

Her background as an economist and her interest in public policy led her to think about the relationship between the government's policies and the prospects for reducing inequality in America.

"I started looking at the government's role in reducing inequality in access to educational opportunities," Baum said.

Baum said the college has handled financial aid allocation well. Skidmore's approach to financial aid is need-based; meaning aid is awarded almost exclusively to accepted students who truly need financial assistance.

The need for innovative solutions to these challenges is more urgent than ever, Baum said, as both students and parents grapple with the increasingly extreme competition that comes with application to highly selective colleges and the financial barriers that stand in the way once acceptance is offered.

In summary of her research and work, Baum said, "The most important issues in the realm of college access are assuring that low-and-moderate-income students have the elementary and secondary education they need to be prepared to do college work and that they do not face insurmountable financial barriers to enrolling and succeeding in college."

The issue goes beyond simply assuring less advantaged students have access to higher education, Baum said.

"But we should also address the question of admissions to highly selective colleges. The current process not only excludes many qualified students from low-income backgrounds – it also does intellectual and psychological damage to many of the students who actively compete for admission."

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