Financial aid changes make planning for college easier

Alan Orrison, student financial advisor, helps student Dan Martinez navigate the terms of the Gates Millennium Scholarship that brought him to Union.

It's been a long time since Union College cost $15 per month, 117 years to be precise. Since then, costs at private colleges nationwide have risen to an average of $23,712 for tuition and fees during 2007-2008, not including room and board. Likewise, the benefits of a bachelor's degree have increased to an expected $800,000 more earned income over a lifetime than someone with a high school diploma.1

Though Union's costs are 32 percent under the national average for private colleges, students and families often need help financing a Christian education. After a year of research and consultation with experts and comparable colleges, Union is launching a new, streamlined financial aid policy.

"Our goal has always been to provide an affordable Christian education," said Rob Weaver, vice president for Enrollment and Student Financial Services. "We've kept tuition down largely through the help of our alumni and mission-oriented faculty and staff, but we've been asking ourselves for a while now if we are using our financial aid budget to maximize the benefit it gives students. With the new policy, I think we can answer 'yes.'"

The previous financial aid system loaded almost all of the benefits onto the first two years, and while still front-loaded, the new policy includes a renewable component that guarantees more money than before for up to three additional years. "Families will be better able to plan for all four years, and the greater renewable funds will make it easier for juniors and seniors to continue at Union," Weaver said. "We hope this will improve Union's retention rate."

While grades and test scores have previously played an important role, much of a student's award was based high school achievements, such as holding leadership positions, being involved in their church and many other variables.

Taryn Rouse, Doretha Dale, Alan Orrison and Elina Camarena comprise Union's Student Financial Services team. "Elina and the financial advisors work long hours and weekends when necessary, even taking calls at home," Rob Weaver said. "Their dedication makes financial issues easier for families to deal with."

"A system that encourages leadership and involvement sounds like a good idea until you try to implement it," said Camarena, director of Student Financial Services. "We couldn't verify anything, and it favored the outgoing over the shy. With so many variables, it's no wonder we always had long lines at registration.

According to Taryn Rouse, student financial advisor, the worst-case scenario under the old system was a student who came unprepared. "If someone couldn't remember or just couldn't articulate what they'd achieved, they'd leave with zero financial aid unless their parents stepped in and did the speaking for them," she said. "Under the new system, the questions are really simple: What was your cumulative GPA? What was your ACT or SAT score? Have you filled out a FAFSA?"2

If a student's answers to the first two questions are 3.5 GPA, an ACT score of 30 (SAT of 1980), then they qualify for the highest level of merit awards, $25,000 over a four-year period, and possibly more if their FAFSA indicates high financial need.

Though the focus remains on academic merit and financial need, those with the most to gain from the new policy are average students from middle class families. In the past, a student with average or low grades and test scores, no leadership experience and a family income too high for government grants received little to no financial aid. Now everyone who fills out a FAFSA gets at least $3,000 for the first year, renewable at $1,500 per year for the three years.

"We really have to thank our donors for providing so much help to our students through unspecified donations, gifts to the Union College Fund and named scholarships," said Stephanie Meyer, scholarships and events director. "Without their commitment, we could never approach this level of financial assistance.

It's important to remember also that what a student qualifies for in direct aid from Union under this policy might not be the only help they receive. Some additional sources of funding will continue to include:

Matching church donations. "It says a lot about a student when a church family steps forward to help in their education," Weaver said. "Union will continue to match donations from churches of up to $3,300 at a rate of 50 percent."

Scholarships for missions and service. Union will continue to reward students for participation in mission and volunteer service, summer camp work, literature evangelism and other activities that further the mission of the world church.

Top test scores. National Merit Award Scholars and those with equivalent ACT scores qualify for 100 percent of tuition. "There are some students every college wants because of their academic excellence," Weaver said. "We are proud of our history of attracting top students to Union, and we'll continue to offer them scholarships at a competitive level." Foundation and corporate scholarships. "I encourage all students to apply for outside scholarships," Rouse said. "Just because Union can't provide more help doesn't mean no one can, and putting a little effort into applying can really pay off." Foundation and corporate scholarships. "I encourage all students to apply for outside scholarships," Rouse said. "Just because Union can't provide more help doesn't mean no one can, and putting a little effort into applying can really pay off."

Grace from the Union College Fund. "Every year I see students who face extraordinary circumstances and don't know how they will continue their education," said David Smith, college president. "Sometimes just a little extra support from our alumni can make a huge difference in a student's life. The Union College Fund provides for some discretionary aid each year."

While taking the guesswork out of financial aid may make the new system seem less magical to students, God's hand is still evident in funding Union College educations. "It sounds corny, but we do see miracles happen all the time," Rouse said. "Really, it can be frustrating sometimes when I've seen a miracle and can't tell everyone because of privacy concerns."

"Seeing everything fall into place makes our jobs rewarding," Camarena added. "We've seen people come in who think they can't afford anything and leave with a plan that meets their needs."

"I want everyone in Mid-America to know that if attending Union has ever crossed their minds, but they didn't think they could afford it, they should call us, write us, e-mail us or just come visit," Camarena said. "You never know what's possible."

1 Statistics gathered by the College Board.
 2 Free Application for Federal Student Aid.