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Skidmore's $200,00 question Putting a price on value
An expensive college education Is it worth it?
Keeping up for the Joneses As tuitions rise, so does financial aid
Proving ground Quantifying quality learning
An educator's education One woman's story
Reaping rewards and paying forward The benefits of a liberal arts education
Both sides now Alumni instructors take stock



 

 

Keeping up for the Joneses
As tuitions rise, financial aid budgets grow even faster in the race for access and affordability

by Pamela Babcock


In his 20 years as Skidmore’s financial aid director, Bob Shorb has fielded plenty of pleas for help. In a typical year, three or four parents might call to report that they’d lost their jobs and needed more funding for their children to enter or continue at Skidmore.

But as the economy melted down last year, those pleas took on a more frantic pitch. Starting with the winter admissions application season, Shorb says, “we had more than a hundred—I’m not making this up—more than a hundred calls from people who’d lost their jobs. I went through a five-week period this spring where every day I got a call like this.” He adds, “For many of these parents there’s no replacement job, because they were making $250,000 to $300,000 a year and those jobs are long gone.” At Skidmore, “we just don’t have the financial capacity to deal with the magnitude of those changes.”

Worse, Shorb then began receiving second calls from the same families to report that the other spouse had joined the unemployment rolls too. Other parents were calling for advice after seeing precipitous drops in their assets, both home equity and investments.

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Skidmore averages 10 applicants for each place in its freshman class. But as a relatively young institution with a still-modest endowment—currently about $225 million—it loses some promising candidates in each admissions cycle because it can’t provide enough financial aid for them all. Skidmore’s price tag places it in the top five in the country, in a peer group led by Sarah Lawrence, Trinity, Vassar, and Bates. With Skidmore’s tuition, room and board, and other fees topping $51,000 per year, meeting the needs of students eligible for aid is more challenging every year. And even before the recent recession, the sheer number of applicants eligible for aid has been growing steadily.

Reflecting Skidmore’s longstanding priority of opening access by granting as much scholarship aid as possible, student aid has been the fastest-growing component of the College’s $122 million annual operating budget, having nearly doubled in just the last six years. This year Skidmore will give out nearly $31 million in need-based grants (and will administer another $17 million in government-funded grants, loans, and jobs).

The costs, and the aid to help cover them, are big numbers with huge impacts on students’ lives. Shorb has no easy berth. But soon he’ll be retiring from Skidmore to start the next phase of his career. In July he became executive director and chief executive officer of the Tuition Exchange, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that facilitates reciprocal scholarship programs for the family members of faculty and staff at nearly 600 educational institutions. He’ll remain at Skidmore part-time through the end of 2010.

Scope spoke recently with Shorb to hear his perspectives on student aid past, present, and future.

Q. How did you first get into financial aid?

A. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. My father was a milkman with a fifth-grade education; my mother finished eighth grade and worked in a shoe factory. I was the first in my family of two brothers and a sister to go to college. So I had a real desire to work in the college environment and give others that same
educational opportunity that I’d had.

As an undergraduate at Mansfield State College, I got a job as a residence-hall advisor and was encouraged to consider a career in higher education. In graduate school, at Alfred University in western New York, I chose to focus on financial aid. My career choice was a conscious decision, which is kind of rare for people in the financial aid world.

Q. What brought you to Skidmore?

A. It was 1988, another period when the economy was in trouble. I had worked previously at Clark University and Wheaton College, and a lot of colleges were struggling (I guess we’re always struggling!) to contain costs, so they didn’t want to increase financial aid. At that time, though, Skidmore was in a growth mode.
When I arrived, 24 percent of students were getting assistance from Skidmore funds, which was not a high figure at the time. Skidmore’s board of trustees made a conscious decision to put more money into financial aid, to foster a more diversified student body. Their goal was to enlarge the contingent of students receiving aid to 30 percent within five years.

I found that objective very interesting, and I saw it as a challenge to be part of the momentum of what Skidmore was doing. Skidmore did beat the odds, not just then but throughout the years—kind of like my going to college and entering this career.

Q. How has Skidmore’s aid program developed over the years?

A. For one thing, when I came to Skidmore, only non-aided students were doing off-campus study at other institutions. Recently we’ve expanded opportunities for aid recipients to take their aid packages with them when they study abroad; we started with eight programs, and we’re now up to 130. We also expanded financial aid to include transfer students and international students.

I’m very proud of the program we’ve been able to run. I was attracted to Skidmore because I felt I could make a difference. Compared to our peer colleges, we haven’t had a lot of money to work with, but we’ve enlarged and stretched our financial aid resources to make Skidmore manageable for more families from a wider range of financial circumstances. We’re so good
at this by now, if you gave us $1 million to work with, I assure you we’d get more out of that money than if you gave one of our sister institutions $4 million. We really get the biggest bang for our buck.

Today we’re aiding 42 percent of our students overall. Of course, most of our competitors can still offer even more aid money to their applicants, so we continue to lose some candidates to them. I dream of how much more we could do with more resources, if we only had what our competitors have.

Q. What steps is Skidmore taking to maintain affordability and access?

A. We really work to limit our tuition increases, a move designed to help all families, not just those who are needy. Historically, when we’ve raised our tuition by 5 percent, it wasn’t unusual for us to increase our financial aid budget by 10 percent. In the upcoming year we’re looking at a similar phenomenon.

We’re also putting more emphasis on counseling to help families learn what other aid sources, loans, and scholarship programs are out there. The office of student aid and family finance is available to assist all students and parents. Not everyone is eligible for aid, but we offer suggestions about ways to approach paying for college. Skidmore financial aid dollars are not the only option. There are federal and state programs, student loans, and work-study. Some families use private loans or home-equity loans. Skidmore even offers a tuition-payment installment plan for families with cash-flow issues. Over the years, I’ve done probably 600 presentations for Skidmore and other college groups, professional association meetings around the nation, family aid seminars… My undergraduate training was to be a high school history teacher, but what I really teach now is financial aid.

We’re always trying to stretch our financial aid dollars, to enroll the strongest and most diverse new class each fall. Along with trying to bring in the academically best students, we look for those who are writers, or athletes, or participants in different activities who have a variety of talents and backgrounds. We’ve come a long way in getting at those objectives, but we’d like to be able to do more. Very often it all comes down to the dollars we can offer.

Q. What’s your take on the controversy about the price and value of colleges like Skidmore?

A. I’m concerned that people are overly upset about college costs. Yes, a quality education is expensive; it’s a labor-intensive project. It’s not like building a car on an assembly line, where we can speed up the line and put in cheaper components. Paying for college isn’t like buying a car that you spend $25,000 on and five or 10 years later it’s junk. You have your education forever, and no one is going to take that from you or diminish its value once you’ve earned it. College is an important, sound investment.

I’m also concerned that some people say they don’t want to take out college loans because they have to pay them back and therefore loans are bad. Well, loans are an important component of student aid, and they’re worthwhile steps to help get you through college—after which, you’ll likely be able to pay them off and have a very productive life.

Q. How do you deal with the pressures of your job?

A. Between the personal side and the paperwork side, financial aid is very challenging work, especially at a high-cost but smaller-endowment college like Skidmore. Our staff has to laugh a lot in order to get through each working day. It can be hard: Just when you think you’ve heard it all, a new and different story pops up.

When I’m reviewing aid applications at home, I listen to rock and roll—everything from the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin. And I love wearing my necktie with the Monopoly money on it, especially at admissions events and open houses. I picked it up at a novelty tie shop in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, years ago. I get so many comments on it. I have two other ties from the same shop (they were three for $20), one with money bags and one with $50 and $100 bills. But they’re not as popular as the Monopoly tie.

Q. Any parting thoughts?

A. Financial aid can’t solve all problems. My parents weren’t go­ing to pay for me to go to college, so I had to be realistic and choose a college I could afford with student loans and jobs. I paid my way through a public college and grad school by working in a shoe factory and a book factory, in college food service, as an undergrad RA, and as a res-hall director when I was a grad student. What it comes down to is, I understand the frustrations.

And remember, if a student can’t go to Skidmore, there’s still some college out there that’s a good fit. We get a lot of great applicants, but we can’t take them all, and the reality is that sometimes that’s for financial reasons.