Paying for College (Early)

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Andrea Guzman’s life story is one that presidential candidates like to proclaim is only possible in America. Born in Colombia, Guzman and her family sought a better life in Canada when the country erupted in political unrest. They eventually moved to Virginia when her father was offered an engineering job. As Andrea talks about how she got to Simon’s Rock, it doesn’t take long to see why she belongs here. This sophomore is exceptionally bright, intellectually imaginative, thoughtful, and deeply engaged—with her education and the world. 

Andrea is just the kind of student that Bard College at Simon’s Rock wants on campus. The feeling is mutual. Students like Andrea are the type of achievers looking to enroll. “When I got the literature about the school, I thought it was really interesting,” and then, “I visited and fell in love.”

Despite the mutual feelings, one thing stood between Andrea and campus: funding. “When I told my father about how much it cost he was silent. Then he laughed and said, ‘You better get to work.’” Andrea is paying for college herself, so her father wasn’t kidding when he made the suggestion. The prospect of getting in and not being able to afford to come was daunting. But, she says, “I was willing to work hard to try and find scholarships.”

Leslie Davidson, the dean of admission and student affairs says, “The most common reason an admitted student doesn’t come to Simon’s Rock is cost.” This is something she’d like to change. “Ideally, I’d like us to be able to meet 100%of each admitted student’s demonstrated need.” 

Susan Emerson Clapp, the director of institutional advancement points out there are two primary ways to help support this goal: giving to the endowment which “will have significance for generations of students,” and contributing to the Annual Fund, which “immediately funds scholarships and grants administered by the College.” However, Clapp underscores that in order to ensure that generations of students from all socio-economic backgrounds get here, “We must rely on the generosity of its donors to help students with the greatest need offset the cost of this education.”  

The real cost

The annual tuition, room, and board at Simon’s Rock is $49,000 a year. And that’s not the most shocking figure. To provide a student with the top quality, deeply personal education families and students have come to expect, it actually costs Simon’s Rock nearly $54,000 per student, each year. These figures are typical. Colleges across the country are scrambling to bridge this financial gap and to help meet the mounting need of prospective students, as federal and state support for higher education erodes and drives up the cost of education. 

Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Williams, along with a handful of other colleges that occupy the rare strata of institutions with billion and multimillion dollar endowments, have been praised for heeding recent calls by Congress to use their wealth to diminish cost. These institutions have committed to offering substantial aid packages that will eliminate a bulk of student debt. And at Harvard, the cost is waved entirely for families earning $60,000 or less. These initiatives are predominately supported by their exceptionally established endowments.

For Bard College at Simon’s Rock the challenge is more complicated. Helping admitted students afford a Simon’s Rock education, without sacrificing the quality that characterizes the experience, requires profound creativity and a dedicated base of supporters. Because Simon’s Rock is young, truly unique, and only beginning to establish an endowment “the College must do more with less,” says Clapp. It’s no cliché when Clapp and the associate director of development for the annual fund, Starr Cornell say that “every gift counts.”   

Doing more with less

As socio-economic diversity on campus has increased, so has the need for institutional aid. More than 26 % of this year’s incoming class comes from Pell Grant-eligible families (these federal grants are given to college students from families with annual incomes of less than $40,000).  With Pell Grants capped at $4731 a year, they do not come close to covering the cost of tuition at many colleges. This means that for many low and middle-income students community and state college may be the only feasible options. 

While a commitment to need-blind admissions, (in which a prospective student’s financial situation is not considered as part of the admission decision) allows the College craft the best class possible, it also requires heavy financial lifting to enable higher need students to attend. On average, 67% of a Simon’s Rock student’s financial aid package is comprised of institutional aid, and 80% of students on campus receive some form of financial aid. To do this the College draws from as many sources as possible.

“Because our mission is so unique, Simon’s Rock has a particular obligation to ensure that students who can benefit from early college are able to attend, regardless of accidents of opportunity or of birth,” Davidson explains. “Our applicants simply don’t have the option of going to that other four-year, residential, liberal arts and sciences-focused, exclusively early college that offered them a better financial aid package.” The College spends a significant portion of its financial aid funds, drawn from the annual operating budget, on the Simon’s Rock Scholarship, which is awarded solely on the basis of need.

In addition, the College has maintained efforts to attract the nation’s highest achievers while expanding the diversity of the student body. Like other top-quality liberal arts colleges, Simon’s Rock attracts some of its students with merit-based scholarships. Of these, the most widely known is the Acceleration to Excellence Program (AEP). In the past, the College awarded full AEP Scholarships that covered tuition, room, board, and fees, along with a number of partial tuition scholarships. A common criticism of merit scholarships nationwide is that they tend to be awarded to students from higher income families.  In order to ensure that we direct as many of our aid dollars as possible to students who would otherwise be unable to attend Simon’s Rock, Davidson explains, the full AEP award was restructured several years ago so that it covers only the cost of tuition.  Recipients with significant financial need may apply for additional need-based aid to help cover the cost of room and board. The savings allows the college to allocate more funds to need-based aid. 

The W.E.B Du Bois Scholarship is a different model. Initiated in the 1980s and designed to support students of color with a record of academic achievement and motivation, the Du Bois Scholarship is awarded by the Office of Admission on the basis of merit. However, the amount of each recipient’s scholarship is determined by the Financial Aid Office on the basis of need. It’s a distinctive hybrid model, marrying merit and need, and designed to support the College’s diversity efforts.

It is exactly what helped Andrea Guzman get here. This second year Du Bois Scholar isn’t sure she’d be here without it. “I would have gone to college but it would have had to be at a place I could afford, close to home.” She takes a deep breath, “I was so relieved when I got the scholarship.” Guzman says it’s not that colleges and universities in Virginia aren’t good; it’s just that they’re not Simon’s Rock. Andrea imagines that she would have gone to school with most of the students from her high school, with a homogeneous student body, commuted if it were close enough, and sat nameless in a giant lecture hall. For someone that has traveled as much as Andrea has, she’s confident when she says, “This is the perfect place for me.”

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