Access and Prestige: The Complex Function of Financial Aid in Higher Education

Graduation cap next to a jar of money
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By Jon Boeckenstedt
Vice Provost of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University in Corvallis



In my last post, I wrote about how admissions works, although the lesson, perhaps, is that the term “admissions office” means very different things at different institutions. And while it’s still true that we in admissions and enrollment management all agree on one thing—that if a student never applies, they won’t enroll—it’s also true that the final step in the process is the processing and delivery of financial aid.

A caveat: This is hard to grasp on the first pass—if it sometimes does not seem to make sense, that just means you probably understand it better than you think you do. I recommend paper, a pencil, and some note-taking to get you through this. It’s going to be challenging to navigate.

About 15 years ago, I started gauging the age of my audience during presentations by putting an image on the screen. It’s the floorboard of an automobile, showing part of the brake and floormat for some context. You’re likely to notice the bright red carpet before you notice something else that doesn’t look quite right: To the left of the brake is a silver button, a little bigger than a quarter. I ask the audience members to raise their hands if they know what it is. As time goes on, a smaller and smaller percentage of people in the crowd know what they’re looking at.

We Baby Boomers know it’s a headlight dimmer switch, of course, and if you knew what I was talking about, your perception of financial aid might need to be brought into the 21st century. For as much as dimmer switches have changed in the past 40 years, financial aid has changed even more.

First, the easy part. Let’s define financial aid for our purposes: It consists of three basic components that colleges put together in combination to create a financial aid package so that students can afford to attend, or so that the student will want to attend, the college:

  • State and federal grants, which are usually administered by, but not determined by, the college. This might be the Federal Pell Grant, for instance, or the New York TAP, the Iowa Tuition Grant, or the Oregon Opportunity Grant.
  • Self-help programs, including on-campus employment, and especially, student loans from various sources and in various amounts. The complexity of student loans might be sufficient for a whole blog post, but for now, just realize that the loan amount plus interest has to be repaid using future resources.
  • Institutional aid, which comes from two general sources: Funded scholarships (where a donor has generously provided money to students who meet certain specified criteria) and unfunded scholarships, or “discount,” where the college simply agrees to forego the tuition revenue for a certain student or group of students.

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