Illustration by Robert P. Hernandez
The entire Colby community should take enormous pride in the trustees’ recent decision to enhance Colby’s financial aid packages by replacing student loans with grants, which don’t have to be repaid. The response—in the media, from alumni, and particularly from students and their parents—is an almost universal outpouring of support and appreciation for the initiative.
The increasing cost of a Colby education has long been an intense concern of mine. I talked about it when we kicked off the Reaching the World campaign, it is a frequent discussion topic among colleagues and trustees, and I worry about it every year as I write the letter telling students and parents what next year’s comprehensive fee will be.
While this change in our aid policy is not a panacea for a trend that is of national concern, it is a big step for Colby. This decision puts us among a select few institutions that are leading by example, dedicating some of their growing endowments to making college more affordable.
The new policy will cost $1.5 million each year in addition to the $21 million we spent on grant aid this year. It will ensure that we continue to compete for the best students, and it will help Colby retain its place among the nation’s very top colleges and universities. Some of these schools have endowments reaching into the stratosphere, but most, even some of our peers in NESCAC, simply do not have the resources to eliminate loans.
The decision was not made primarily for competitive reasons, though. The most important rationale for eliminating student debt from our financial aid program is that it offers access to opportunity more equitably. It is a deep and historic commitment that Colby wants to enroll the very best students, regardless of their ability to pay, and this initiative to expand grant aid will make Colby affordable to more students from low- and middle-income families.
Why is this important? Because education is one of the greatest engines of opportunity in America and in the world. A Colby education in particular, I believe, has the power to transform lives, and it is our obligation to make sure it is available and affordable to those who can most benefit.
Though the decision was made too late to affect the overall admission pool this year, there is evidence that prospective students and families are getting the message that we will work to make Colby affordable to all. After the same offer was made to Maine students last fall, we saw a 49-percent increase in applications from within the state.
It is important to distinguish what this aid program is not. It is not merit aid—scholarships awarded for good grades or high test scores that, like athletic scholarships, are given without regard to financial need. Merit aid, increasingly practiced at other institutions, is used to enroll attractive candidates by offering a discount, even though their families could afford full fees. At Colby all financial aid is need based.
Colby families may still choose to take out federal loans to cover the calculated family contribution, books, or other expenses. But, based on current aid packages, students with financial need can expect to graduate with $14,400 less debt because of the loans-to-grants decision by our Board of Trustees. Add the interest they will avoid and the total is more than $18,300 that our students won’t have to pay off as a result.
But there are even more important consequences for our alumni and for Colby. Without the burden of this college-loan debt, Colby graduates will have more freedom to pursue careers about which they are passionate. They will be freer to choose work where they can make a difference, to lead lives of consequence, and even to change the world. For Colby as an institution, this new aid policy is a visible manifestation of some very deeply held values—opportunity, competitiveness, and integrity.