School to scholars: Give aid back
Penn State seeks way to boost money for needy students
PHILADELPHIA - Students accepted into Penn State University’s prestigious honors college get more than academic feathers in their caps. They get $3,500 annual merit scholarships.
But given the tough economic times, the school is making an unusual request: Would parents consider donating money back?
The fund-raising appeal for Schreyer Honors College leans on parents who have not applied for financial aid for their children, encouraging them to share their good fortune with needier students. It appears to be working. The first appeal to 75 families last year raised about $128,000.
“I have not heard of this kind of an approach before,’’ said Lee Andes, president of the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs. “It doesn’t surprise me to hear people getting creative.’’
Penn State’s appeal might be unusual, but the economic downturn has forced colleges around the country to rethink a decades-long shift toward using scarce financial aid dollars to lure high-achieving students.
Some schools and states have tightened criteria for merit aid or eliminated it altogether to focus on students with the most need. The University of Texas at Austin plans next fall to withdraw from the National Merit Scholarship Program, which relies solely on standardized test scores to choose semifinalists and has been criticized for steering money to students who don’t necessarily need it most.
Still, merit aid helps colleges lure top students and improve their rankings and reputations. Penn State is continuing its merit scholarships but hoping to persuade recipients’ parents to return the favor.
Schreyer parents, with administrators’ backing, made their first appeal in a letter to other parents as the recession worsened. Students had begun turning to the college for additional financial help; in all, there was more than $1 million in unmet need at this time a year ago, said Dean Christian Brady.
After the success of that campaign, parents this year doubled the number of solicitations, which went out a few weeks ago.
“When you pay that tuition bill, I am asking you to assess whether you ‘need’ the scholarship and, if you do not, please join me and my husband by making a donation in the amount of the scholarship to the Schreyer Honors College,’’ reads the letter from Kristin Hayes, mother of a junior in the program. “In these challenging economic times, many of our children’s fellow Schreyer classmates have significant needs that are becoming increasingly difficult for Schreyer and Penn State to meet.’’
In a telephone interview, Hayes called the letter a “heartfelt plea’’ to help those in need.
“These are my daughter’s friends and roommates and colleagues,’’ Hayes said. “People help their friends and their neighbors. That’s all it’s about.’’
Hayes, whose husband serves on the Schreyer board, did not write last year’s letter but made follow-up phone calls. No parents reacted negatively, even if they declined to make a donation, she said.
Brady called the appeal an “unintrusive’’ way for more affluent families to help defray costs for students with hardships. Annual undergraduate tuition at Penn State ranges from about $13,000 to more than $29,000 depending on a student’s year, major, and state of residence.
“These are students with very high need,’’ Brady said.