Rice University Invests in Students in the Middle

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Rice University has long been committed to serving its low-income students, highlighting on its website that it adheres to a need-blind admissions policy and is a need-based institution. But starting last fall, the university took a big step to support a different swath of its learners who often feel financially squeezed. 

The initiative, dubbed the Rice Investment, offers students from middle- and upper-middle income families some form of grant aid and scholarships in place of loans. Specifically, the program covers half the tuition for students from families making between $130,001 and $200,000, the full tuition of students from families making between $65,001 and $130,000, and tuition, fees, room, and board for students from families making below $65,000. Students from upper-middle income families on average qualify for about $20,000 in aid, while the full cost of tuition is around $46,000, said Yvonne Romero da Silva, the vice president for enrollment at Rice University. 

“We are committing to upping [aid] to half tuition for that income bracket,” she explained.  

Implementing financial aid policies to support students from higher income brackets is a growing trend among colleges and universities. For example, Princeton University in 2018 announced it would cover the cost of tuition for students from families with incomes up to $160,000, and Stanford University and Harvard College cover tuition costs for students from families making up to $150,000.    

The Rice Investment — which was announced in the summer of 2018 and first granted to students in fall 2019 — grew out of a long-range plan to make the university more affordable, da Silva said.

“We knew Rice wanted to put effort in for a financial aid initiative … and we were hearing from our alumni that perhaps there was more we can do [for middle- and upper-middle-class families],” da Silva said. “We wanted to look and see if there was an offering we could provide that could ease the cost of education.”

And it has shown promising results. Coupled with anecdotal praise for the program from prospective students and their parents, Rice University saw increases in both enrollment and aid disbursed after announcing the initiative. Specifically, the admissions office received 27,087 applications for the class of 2023 — a 29% increase from the year before. da Silva said the proportion of students receiving need-based aid at the school increased from 44% to 50%, and that the university disbursed $73 million in need-based financial aid this year — an increase of $7 million compared to 2018-19. 

“Because we made this retroactive to include all undergraduates, we expect this cost to be similar in future years,” da Silva explained. 

But it doesn’t stop there. As part of the effort, the university is also seeking to introduce more transparency into its financial aid offers by promoting the program using terms such as income and tuition in place of less easily understood terms like Expected Family Contribution (EFC). 

“Financial aid offerings — it’s a black box,” da Silva said. “People don’t really know what their financial aid is going to be. We looked at ways we could make understanding of eligibility much more simplified.” 

The Rice Investment, da Silva said, has grabbed the attention of other universities, who approached her about it at a National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) conference following the university’s debut of the program.  

“We’re excited that it’s changing the nature of conversations at other schools,” she said. “Even flagship universities were asking, ‘How can we make the process more transparent?’”  

Plus, da Silva said, she continues to be encouraged by the positive responses from students at the university.

“It was super celebrated. Students who didn’t even qualify were happy for this commitment to those families,” she said. “It’s one of the proudest initiatives I’ll probably ever have the opportunity to be a part of.” 

While the program is currently funded by alumni donations, the university's endowment, and its operating budget, Rice University is hoping to raise $150 million by 2025 to sustain the program for years to come — which da Silva said she’s confident it will be able to do.  

She explained that while Rice University is in a unique position to implement its program because of its strong endowment to support the program and relatively small undergraduate population, other universities looking to help more of its students with their unmet need should “think about how every dollar is spent.”

“It requires a lot of creativity, and a willingness to think outside the box,” da Silva said.   

Our members are constantly going above and beyond to help their students succeed in higher education. NASFAA's Member Spotlight stories feature initiatives that our members have pursued that exceed the traditional scope of responsibilities of a financial aid office. If your university or financial aid office has taken on a project or unique efforts to help students, please reach out to us at news@nasfaa.org.

 

Publication Date: 3/2/2020


Pamela F | 3/2/2020 2:19:26 PM

Years ago I mentioned the strain higher education put on middle income families and predicted a backlash from this group that has had to rely on student loans to send their children to college. Universities took the plight of low income students to heart and made college possible for them but ignored the middle class. This is understandable as it is very expensive to make college affordable for all. The solution is more government grant funding and larger appropriations for state schools, not selective private institutions making grants available to the select students that are fortunate to be admitted.

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