University of Chicago launches unusual strategy to enroll more low-income students

Economic Indicators Associated Press

As selective colleges try to increase economic diversity among their undergraduates, the University of Chicago announced Wednesday that it's embarking on an unusual effort to enroll more low-income students, including the elimination of loans in its aid packages.

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What's more, the elite school will no longer expect financial-aid students to hold jobs during the school year and application fees will be waived for families seeking aid. The initiative includes scholarships, career guidance and a guarantee of paid summer internships, officials said as they announced the No Barriers program. The university will offer more than 100 workshops across the nation to demystify the admissions and financial aid process.

"We want to ensure that students of high ability can aspire to join this community without financial worry, and with comprehensive support for their success both in the College and beyond graduation," University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer said in a statement.

While other elite schools have tried the no-debt policy, the University of Chicago program is the most thorough effort of its kind, outside experts said.

"This is as complete and comprehensive an approach as you'll ever see," said Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education, which represents college presidents.

The percentage of low-income students in selective universities hasn't changed much in two decades. Higher education leaders recognize the growing wealth gap in the United States and are recommitting to enhancing economic opportunity, Hartle said.

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The University of Chicago's economic diversity has lagged behind that of other institutions, with roughly 12 percent of freshmen coming from low-income families. Annual tuition, room and board tops $62,000. The university's endowment, meanwhile, is $6.67 billion.

Last year, the University of Virginia ended its no-loan policy, citing rising costs. "After the University of Virginia disbanded its program, we were starting to become nervous that other elite institutions would follow," said Michelle Asha Cooper of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit group working to increase access to higher education.

"What needs to happen now is follow-through with sustained action," Cooper said of the Chicago program.

Sandy Baum, a higher education economist at the Urban Institute, applauded the Chicago effort, particularly the paid summer internships, which she said "can really improve the experience for low-income students." But Baum cautioned that elite universities can only do so much.

"They aren't going to solve the problem" of lack of preparation for elite schooling among low-income students, Baum said. "We need to solve the problem earlier in these kids' lives" with early childhood and K-12 education, she said.