By Beverly Steele and Kate Michaels
In late March, APLU’s Powered by Publics initiative hosted a virtual convening exploring financial aid innovations in higher education both before and after the pandemic. Moderated by Alcione Frederick, Assistant Director at APLU’s Center for Public University Transformation, the session included three panelists: Natalia Morisseau, Director of Financial Aid, Rutgers University, Newark; Tomikia LeGrande, Vice President for Strategy, Enrollment Management and Student Success, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU); and David Peterson, Assistance Vice Provost for Enrollment Management and Student Financial Aid, University of Cincinnati.
Each panelist highlighted an innovative program and practice that helps increase college affordability. The programs and practices illustrated the variety of approaches public universities are taking to improve college affordability and student success. Virginia Commonwealth University’s Student Financial Management Center serves high-need, first-generation college students, pairing them with an academic advisor and financial aid counselor to enhance their financial literacy. Through its RU-N- to the TOP program, Rutgers University, Newark is working to provide financially strapped local students with last-dollar scholarships to boost college affordability in the Newark community. The University of Cincinnati’s Cooperative Education Program, meanwhile, is pairing students with employers in its community so students can earn money and gain experience in their chosen in their field as they pursue a degree.
Throughout the session, panelists emphasized to need for a more holistic approach to addressing student financial need, explaining that college affordability is a bigger than the amount of money awarded to students through financial aid. Panelists also underscored the need to seek new ways to meet the diverse financial need of today’s students and to ensure that programs and policies are evolving alongside evolving student populations. VCU conducted a year-long study of its students’ total unmet financial need and found that students had a $180 million in unmet need. The study led VCU to rethink its financial aid strategy, invest more in need-based institutional aid, and consider how each student and situation is different, requiring greater engagement with students to meet needs. Panelists discussed the importance of empowering students to make informed decisions about their financial aid options, in part by implementing support models that allow for a high level of engagement between students, their families, and campus financial aid and advising departments.