UChicago’s New Commitment to Low-Income Students

On Wednesday, the University of Chicago announced some major initiatives to increase college access and support for low-income students throughout their academic careers.

No Barriers

One of the new initiatives is No Barriers, a program that aims to simplify the admission application and financial aid process. No Barriers includes:

  • Replacement of student loans with grants in all need-based financial aid packages: This is a big move to reduce college debt, which means the University is finally catching up to peer institutions in terms of sound financial aid policies. Though student activists will never receive credit for this change, the Southside Solidarity Network had been campaigning for a no-loan policy for the past few years.
  • No college application fees for families seeking financial aid
  • Elimination of the CSS Financial Aid Profile requirement: The CSS Profile is the worst invention to befall college students, so no one is sad to see this overly complicated application go.
  • More than 100 free, nationwide information sessions on college application and the financial aid process: These sessions have the potential to make a big impact on the students applying to the College. The simplification of the financial aid process is a step in the right direction. Increasing access isn’t as simple as holding more sessions, though. The University has to be intentional about where they hold these sessions, in addition to their outreach, to ensure low-income students take advantage of these opportunities.

In addition to showing a commitment to increasing college access, the University also announced changes to improve the quality of life for students already in the College.

Odyssey Scholarship

The Odyssey Scholarship was created in 2008 as an effort to reduce or eliminate loans for students with limited incomes. Many low-income students benefit from the Odyssey’s financial support. The announcement on Wednesday shows enhancements to the Odyssey program that will increase support throughout their college careers.

Many of the changes to Odyssey are addressing various issues the Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance (SDA) has brought up over the past few years. The changes include:

  • All Odyssey Scholars are guaranteed paid summer internship or research opportunities after their first year in the College: SDA members publicly discussed this issue various times in panel discussions and events. Low-income students often don’t have the ability to take on unpaid internships or low-paying internships, so summer opportunities can often be limited. This is an exciting change, but the details are still ambiguous. My biggest question is the amount of funding students will receive and how the University will aid in the summer opportunity search process.
  • No employment requirements during the academic year: This change is so drastic that it’s hard to wrap my mind around it. The elimination of work requirements means some big changes to financial aid allocation. In a SDA panel discussion last year, a student panelist discussed her inability to major in chemistry because of her long work hours. This change is surely going to be positive. It’s tough to imagine all students will have the luxury of not working at all, but improving the ability of some students to have more choice is a positive step.
  • Community building through pre-orientation programs and new programming in career and leadership training: This is probably the most exciting change for me. As a low-income, first-generation student, it was extremely difficult to build a social network. While the University offers the Chicago Academic Achievement Program, many students don’t participate in that program. SDA has been adamant about the need for more community building programs, in addition to support for first-generation students. It is yet to be seen what these pre-orientation programs will look like and whether they will take into account the first-generation identity, but they are a step in the right direction.
  • Additional funds will be available for Odyssey Scholars to take part in College programming, including study abroad: SDA has been public about the elitism and inaccessibility of study abroad for low-income students. In our economic diversity task force with administrators, we mentioned the difficulty low-income students face in affording food once abroad in expensive countries. In addition to that, we discussed the wealth divide that arises when bonding is encouraged through the spending of money, such as weekend trips to other countries. These changes are still too ambiguous to gauge the extent of the impact, but I am hoping the additional funds for college programming alleviates some of the classism I saw throughout college.

The changes to Odyssey represent big wins for SDA because they will lessen some of the burdens low-income students face at UChicago.

Economic Diversity

Given the big monetary commitment the University is showing through these initiatives, many are praising administrators but also questioning motives.

In early September, The New York Times released their rankings of the most economically diverse colleges. The rankings are based on the share of Pell grant recipients (students coming from the bottom 40% of income distribution) and the net price of attendance for low-and middle-income students. They only looked at colleges with a 4-year graduation rate of at least 75%, so only 100 colleges made the cut-off for their rankings. Despite their questionable methodology (which excluded most colleges), it is still worth noting that UChicago ranked far behind many of the top colleges on the list.

On the same day as UChicago’s announcement, the New York Times published an article about its economic diversity. In that article, the New York Times indicates that UChicago’s share of Pell students has been about 11.5% in recent years (I’ve seen variations of this percentage, though).

One line says:

“Indeed, among a group of 12 elite colleges — the eight in the Ivy League, plus Chicago, Duke, M.I.T. and Stanford — Chicago has enrolled the lowest share of Pell students in recent years.”

I would not be surprised to hear that No Barriers was partly motivated by the New York Times rankings.

Altruistic motives or not, these changes are a step in the right direction. Now, we will have to wait and see how well they pan out during the implementation.

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