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Investing in Opportunity

“We are proud to meet the needs of our students. It’s a core value and tradition at Chicago.”
—Susan Art, Dean of Students in the College

John Thomas III and Kimberlee Pelster have very different interests and futures in mind. In completely different phases of their academic careers, the former is a doctoral student and the latter is a College sophomore. But together they represent a powerful trend at the University—a renewed financial commitment to invest in students’ educations.

In 2007, that commitment reached a high-water mark of $199.8 million, the University’s total expenses for both graduate and undergraduate aid. While Chicago has always been known for embracing an economically diverse student body, this increase in scholarship support is a telling metric about Chicago’s intention, in President Zimmer’s words, to recruit “those students who can most benefit from, and contribute to, Chicago’s uniquely powerful and rigorous education, whatever their financial circumstances.”

One such student is John Thomas III, the kind of scholar many universities would like to entice—a high-performing doctoral student conducting original research in an area of inquiry where he will leave a mark. Thomas’s expertise is the Andes—the black Andes. He studied black culture in Peru on an IIE Fulbright grant and now plans to extend that study to Ecuador and Venezuela. Given the region’s dearth of data, Thomas must create and collect it himself. He has been interviewing organizations, making connections, and getting linked in with black cultural and political movements across the continent.

Why did he choose Chicago’s political science department? Thomas cites two determining factors. One is the legendary Chicago culture. “Most of the current scholarship has been limited to sociology and anthropology. I needed a place that would allow me to be multidisciplinary. The whole Chicago school of thought is not just politics, but cultural linkages.”

But equally important was the matter of financial support. Previous graduate support packages at Chicago had varied from program to program and even within a department. But starting in 2007, the University’s new Graduate Aid Initiative provides all incoming doctoral students in the social sciences and humanities the same generous package of support. For Thomas and his peers, that includes tuition waivers, health insurance, a teaching assistantship, two summers of research support, a stipend for living expenses—and the guarantee that the support will be in place for five years. By 2013, when the program is expected to be fully operational, the University will be providing graduate students with an estimated $13 million annually in new support. These packages will enable the University to maintain enrollment levels in the graduate programs of its Social Sciences and Humanities Divisions, which are among the largest and most comprehensive of their kind at leading private research universities.

By developing a model for doctoral student financial packages that is generous, uniform, and fair, the University sends a clear signal: the best and brightest prospective students will be supported throughout the pursuit of their doctoral degrees—and they will be able to complete those degrees as expeditiously as possible. “This is our best package,” says Martha T. Roth, Dean of the Division of the Humanities. “And it will allow students to take money out of the equation when they are weighing graduate schools. They will be able to make an intelligent decision based on where they want to go—and with whom they want to study—without having to think about money.”

At the same time that this multimillion-dollar commitment to graduate students has been under development, undergraduate financial aid is being transformed by the Odyssey Scholarship Program, the result of a remarkably generous $100-million gift from an anonymous donor. The Odyssey Scholarships will eventually affect 25 percent of the College’s students—and fully half of its students on financial aid.

For students like second-year Kimberlee Pelster, such support can mean a great deal. A public policy major who hopes to work on child welfare issues, she will bring a much-needed insider’s perspective to the field: when she was in sixth grade, she herself entered the foster care system.

Pelster is also what the University terms an “independent student,” meaning she carries sole financial responsibility for her education costs. Currently, her financial aid package includes loans she will have to pay back after graduation, as well money she contributes out of her earnings from three part-time jobs.

“Many students will see the loan portions of their financial aid packages entirely replaced with grant money,” says Vice-President and Dean of College Enrollment Michael Behnke. “They will graduate without a debt burden.”

And with concern about debt removed, students will be able to avoid excessive hours at jobs. “I’ll be able to devote more energy to my interests,” says Pelster. “I would like to volunteer at Chapin Hall Center for Children, doing research in child welfare to influence policy makers—which I don’t have the luxury of doing now.”

The Odyssey Scholarship donation brought Chicago national recognition—not only because it was the largest single gift given to a university in Illinois, but also because of the circumstances of the gift. The donor, who graduated in the 1980s, believes deeply in the core curriculum and appreciates the Homeric reference. He has said that, like Odysseus, he feels himself on an exciting journey and believes his education enabled him to survive many failures. “Although I fell far from the academic vine,” he has written, “my education in the College convinced me (in a way that no event or person has yet to undermine) that I was in fact . . . somehow a worthy citizen of an ancient and honorable community of scholars.” The University has undertaken to raise another $300 million to fully fund the Odyssey program.

Announced in May 2007 and slated to begin in autumn 2008, the program will dramatically alter the financial aid picture for more than 1,200 students in the College from low- and moderate-income families, the first beneficiaries. About 800 students will have no loan expectation; the rest will have their loan expectation reduced by half.

Funding from the Odyssey initiative will also enhance the twentythree- year-old Chicago Academic Achievement Program (CAAP), a summer bridge program for bright students who have not had the benefit of an enriched high school preparation. Originally a six-week, commuter Work-Study program for a dozen Chicago-area students, CAAP will now be available to about fifty students, who will live on campus for eight weeks in the summer. The summer work requirement will be eliminated, and instead the students will receive a $1,000 stipend. They will also participate in a study group during the academic year. “We are saying to these students, you have loads of potential but may have missed out on opportunities your classmates may have had,” says Susan Art, Dean of Students in the College. “We are proud to meet the needs of our students. It’s a core value and tradition at Chicago.”

The University’s need-blind admission policy means that admissions officers do not look at the related financial aid material when considering applications. Students are accepted without regard for their economic situation, and once they are admitted, the University is committed to making up the difference between costs (tuition, room, board, etc.) and the amount that the student and his or her family can pay. This year, nearly half of all undergraduates (48.1 percent) received some form of aid, with the average package equaling $19,934—figures that represent a 9.6 percent increase in the University’s spending over the previous year.

Programs such as the Odyssey Scholarships and the Graduate Aid Initiative support students with the most financial need, make a Chicago education available to the widest economic vector of students, and express a confidence vote in both students and faculty. “At Chicago, we measure our self worth not by wealth but by whether or not we have good ideas,” says Behnke. “The priority here is academic excellence.”

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