Less Debt, More Opportunity

By Joe Bagnoli Jr.

In November, the College announced that it would eliminate student loans in financial aid packages and replace them with scholarships. This initiative, unanimously endorsed by the Board of Trustees and effective in the fall of 2021 for all new and continuing students, was intended to reduce the debt burden on our students and their families in the midst of a pandemic and economic uncertainty.

One of the most enlightening things I learned in my formative years as an academic administrator is that access without support is not the same thing as opportunity. Whether in reference to tutoring, peer mentoring, advising, or any educational intervention, the optimal result is achieved only when support follows access. Some might say that access to a selective college is pointless without adequate support for those admitted. The question goes like this, “Why bother admitting a student if we cannot provide a program designed to enable their success?”

I believe the same should be asked of our admission and financial aid policies at Grinnell. What use is need-blind admission if we are unable to meet 100% of every student’s demonstrated financial need? More than any admission or financial aid policy we have at Grinnell, the commitment to meet need ensures that access to Grinnell is met by the opportunity to walk into new student orientation and across the commencement stage without the burden of looming educational indebtedness.

The pandemic’s impact on our economy has only heightened fears of educational indebtedness. In a recent survey of 31,000 high school seniors, 92% indicated they are feeling fear or anxiety, with their top concern being their ability to afford college.

Since March 2020, we have awarded more than $10 million in unscheduled financial aid to assist our students with new financial need during the pandemic. We know that all colleges are in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat. Although it would be obtuse to ignore the immediate challenges facing our students and their families, questions persist about our ability to sustain such a generous financial aid policy in the long term.

Even before the no-loan initiative, Grinnell was spending more on grant assistance as a share of its annual operating expenses than any other institution committed to need-blind admission. Replacing student loans with scholarships and grants will place us in a decisive position of national leadership, and it will test our resolve.

While we were financially able to launch the no-loan initiative by shifting existing budgets, sustaining it over the long term is another matter. The usual perception is that our sizeable endowment can and will cover such costs. In reality, well before the pandemic hit, Grinnell was concerned about the limitations of a funding model that relies so heavily on its endowment. The fact is, even though our endowment is considerable, we were already spending the equivalent of half its value every 10 years to support our operating budget. For an institution committed to a long-term focus on access, diversity, and financial sustainability, that is just too much.

But another answer may come through the generosity of those who care most about our mission and have the capacity to support it through their philanthropy at any level. In order for our choices to continue to match our values and serve our mission, Grinnellians can, and I believe will, find ways to give back and stand with us in supporting this initiative. Doing so will not only help current students weather this unprecedented storm, but also allow future generations of students to graduate with less debt and more opportunity well after the pandemic is behind us.

Joe Bagnoli Jr.Joe Bagnoli, Jr. has served as vice president for enrollment, dean of admission and financial aid since 2012. He is also father to Lilianna Bagnoli ’15 and four other children who have completed the college search and selection process.

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