With the incoming Northwestern class of 2023, every undergraduate student that qualifies for financial assistance from the University will fall under NU’s no-loan policy, which was introduced in fall 2016.
As it stands, three classes of students — 2020, 2021 and 2022 — receive financial aid under this policy, which removes loans from a student’s financial aid package. Typically, universities meet financial need through a combination of work-study, loans and grant funding, but at NU, financial aid packages now only include work-study and federal and institutional grant funding. However, students can still take out federal and private loans to cover additional expenses and the Expected Family Contribution calculated by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
Once the policy is fully implemented next year, Phil Asbury, the University’s director of financial aid, said NU will have a better prediction of what financial aid expenditures will be in the University’s larger budget.
“Until we’ve been fully implemented, we’ve had disproportionate increases in the amount that we spend on financial aid each year,” Asbury said. “That can be a little shocking to a university budget. You implement one year, and then you kind of step back from it, and it’s easy for people to forget the reason that your aid expenditures go up each year.”
Fewer students at NU take out loans than at other institutions, which is a result of the no-loan policy, Asbury added. But even under the policy, some are concerned about the financial options available.
Benefits of the policy
As a student with a low-income background, Weinberg sophomore Diana Velazquez said the University has been financially generous to her family.
“My dad earns minimum wage and my mom doesn’t work,” she said. “Northwestern has really supported me and given me scholarships, which takes off the burden so I don’t have to look for a job or find a work-study job.”
When the no-loan policy was announced, NU also placed a $20,000 cap on the amount of loans students in the class of 2019 and above could take out in their four years. If a student’s loans exceeded $20,000, the remainder was covered by a “Debt Cap Scholarship.”
Weinberg senior Grant Everly said the debt cap was a “blanket security” that he wasn’t going to graduate with more than $20,000 in loan debt.
“I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about the amount of debt people take to go to college, and one of the benefits of Northwestern is I’ll walk out without debilitating amounts of debt,” Everly said.
Loans to cover Expected Family Contribution
While loans are no longer included in financial aid packages, students can still take out federal loans to meet the Expected Family Contribution, the amount NU decides a family can pay given its information on FAFSA and the Northwestern University Aid Application — used for returning students — or CollegeBoard CSS Profile, which is used for incoming students only.
SESP junior Kelsey Morton, who is part of the first class to fall under this policy, said she had to take out federal loans and private Discover Student Loans to pay for her large Expected Family Contribution, as it was over twice the amount her father could pay.
“I already owe close to $30,000 in just private loans, and then every year I have to take out the max amount of federal loans,” Morton said.
If a student’s financial situation changes outside what is reported on FAFSA or the University Aid Application, the student can submit an appeal to the Office of Financial Aid for their extenuating circumstances to be taken into consideration. For Morton, the appeal process lowered her Expected Family Contribution drastically.
However, she said the process was difficult because the only specific options listed were “extreme circumstances.” Her situation — her family was spending a lot of its net income on health insurance — fell under the catch-all “other” option, she said, which left her wondering if it was a valid reason for an appeal.
“I was so stressed out about that, so I went to CAPS,” Morton said. “My therapist wrote a letter to the financial aid office, saying ‘please help her.’ That letter was also part of the appeal form package, and I feel like that helped my case a lot. But people shouldn’t have to go to therapy to get the financial aid that they need.”
Searching for alternative resources
In addition to the Office of Financial Aid, students with financial need can seek out additional resources from several offices and programs on campus, including Student Enrichment Services, Northwestern Career Advancement and Books for Cats.
Velazquez said she received winter gear through the SES programs, as well as free books through Books for Cats for the courses she was taking.
“If Northwestern didn’t support programs like that, I don’t know how I would have done it,” Velazquez said.
While the University has numerous programs for students with financial need, some students say it’s not enough.
Weinberg sophomore Shanida Younvanich said that although SES has often come in handy, she thinks the Office of Financial Aid can do better to provide more financial security to low-income students.
Younvanich added that she hopes the University works to support low-income students beyond financial support by helping change the stigma surrounding them.
“People are indignant because we are paying a lot less than what they are, but they don’t realize that’s because we literally cannot pay any more,” she said. “You feel a little less inclined to ask for more financial aid because you don’t want to seem like you’re freeloading.”
Further outreach needed
This year, the University met its “20 by 2020” goal of having 20 percent of the entering class be Pell Grant-eligible. Asbury said the University does not have any new goals or initiatives similar to “20 by 2020” — instead, he said the conversation on campus has turned to helping students better navigate the resources available to them.
“We want students to know everything that’s available, and that’s the hard part about being a generous university with a lot of programs, is that there are a lot of programs,” Asbury said. “We need to do a little better job of coordinating all of those.”
SES director Kourtney Cockrell said it would be helpful if the University was more transparent on what loans cannot cover, whether that be health insurance or “ambiguous” personal expenses.
However, she said it is more important to remember that low-income and first-generation students all have different backgrounds and financial needs, and the University should create programs and initiatives with that in mind.
“At the end of the day, what lower-income, first-gen students need is for the entire campus to really think of all their students for their developing programs, initiatives, requirements and really centering the experience of all our marginalized groups,” Cockrell said. “That’s what they really need — for faculty, staff and administrators to lead with an inclusive lens.”
Because NU covers 100 percent of need-based aid, Morton, the SESP junior, said the University isn’t necessarily the issue, but the system that calculates a student’s Expected Family Contribution is “definitely a problem.”
Still, she said she wished NU communicated options better to students who might need to take out loans to over their Expected Family Contribution.
“You go to this company and say, ‘Hey, can I have this money?’ And then they pay it to the school, so the school knows you’re taking out these loans,” Morton said. “Northwestern needs to reach out and say, ‘I see that you took out $16,000 this year from Discover. Let’s talk about that to see what we can do so you don’t have to do that in the future.’”
Catherine Kim contributed reporting.