Contact: Melanie Magara, Office of Public Affairs
November 24, 2008
DEKALB – Among the hardest hit in today’s economic downturn are working-class families whose modest incomes limit their ability to save for college but also curtail their childrens’ eligibility for college financial aid. A new program announced today by Northern Illinois University helps make up the difference between state and federal grants and the cost of tuition – a move NIU officials believe will put a high quality college education within the reach of more Chicagoland families.
The Huskie Advantage Program provides no-strings-attached “gift aid” to new freshmen entering the university in the fall of 2009. Any portion of tuition costs not covered by a combination of the Illinois MAP grant and the federal Pell grant will be covered by the new program.
“As a university that historically has served the sons and daughters of the working class, NIU has become increasingly concerned about issues of affordability,” said NIU President John Peters. “The Huskie Advantage program reflects our commitment to making high-quality education accessible to citizens of all economic backgrounds.”
At the heart of the financial dilemma for many prospective students are complex financial aid formulas that assume a more substantial family contribution than many parents can now afford.
According to NIU Vice Provost Earl “Gip” Seaver, the ability of working class families to save enough for their children’s college education has slipped dramatically in recent years – but state and federal aid guidelines have yet to adjust to new economic realities.
Under state and federal financial aid formulas, families at the lowest end of the income scale qualify for grants that cover most or all of their student’s college costs. Just above the poverty level, however, are thousands of families making just enough money to get by – but too much to qualify for the amount of aid needed to affordably send their children to public universities.
NIU officials illustrated the problem with a real-life example from last fall’s financial aid counseling sessions: A student whose parents both work entered their combined $52,000 income on his financial aid application. With a state MAP grant of $3,300 and a federal Pell grant of just $890, the student’s unmet tuition need totaled $1,960 – an amount he could not impose on his cash-strapped family, and for which he could not obtain an affordable loan (see Focus on Working Class Chart at right).
“Under the Huskie Advantage program, that student’s financial aid award letter would have shown the remaining tuition balance marked ‘paid’ by the institution,” Seaver explained. “Increasingly, the amount of shortfall that keeps students from realizing their dream of attending NIU is the $1,000 or $2,000 that financial aid won’t cover and that Mom and Dad just don’t have.”
The Huskie Advantage program is targeted at freshmen because beginning college students have the greatest need and the fewest financial aid options. Low-interest federal loans, for example, are capped at $3,500 for freshmen – an amount that increases every year thereafter (see Focus on Freshmen Chart at right).
“By the time students reach their junior years, there are many more options available,” Seaver explained. “Unfortunately, freshmen are regarded as something of a bad risk by lenders, so at the very time students need that help the most, it is the least available.”
Based on a study of the university’s current freshman class, Seaver estimates the Huskie Advantage program will help 900 – 1,000 new NIU students each year.
“Every fall, we survey students who were admitted to NIU but chose not to attend,” Seaver said. “Over the past two or three years, we’ve seen a sharp increase in the number who say they simply couldn’t put a financial package together that allowed them to join us as freshmen. We’re confident that this program will not only increase freshman access but also enhance our students’ chances for long-term success at NIU.”
For more information on the Huskie Advantage Program, visit www.huskieadvantage.niu.edu.