Admissions & Student Aid

Amid Budget Cuts, Colorado State U. Unveils New Student-Aid Plan

William A. Cotton, Colorado State U.

Colorado State U. expects about 21 percent of in-state undergraduates to be covered under a new grant program.
June 17, 2010

Colorado State University announced on Thursday that it would introduce a program in the fall of 2011 to make tuition more affordable for in-state students.

Through the program, known as the "Commitment to Colorado," the university would guarantee to cover the price of tuition and fees for in-state students who are eligible for federal Pell Grants with a combination of federal, state, and institutional grant aid. In-state students with annual family incomes of $57,000 or less would have at least half the price of tuition, but not fees, covered by grant aid.

The university expects about 3,760 students, or 21 percent of in-state undergraduates, to be covered under the new program, based on enrollment projections. Colorado State estimated that the program would cost $2-million a year on top of what the university already spends on aid, and it would pay that additional expense with tuition revenue and money reallocated from other areas.

Colorado has cut support to the university by $30-million—23 percent—over the last three years. And the governor recently signed legislation that gives the state's public colleges and universities more control over setting the price of tuition. Colorado State was already planning its financial-aid program, but the timing for sending a message of affordability was "serendipitous," said Tony Frank, the university's president. "If all you're seeing is stuff about tuition going up, you're really concerned about the family who says, 'I don't know how I'd ever afford college,'" he said.

The university decided to include students whose families made up to $57,000—the median family income in the state—because "there is a lot of pressure on middle-income families" who do not qualify for other sources of need-based grant aid, Mr. Frank said.

Still, most of the money to be spent on the new program will go toward Pell-eligible students, said Sandy N. Calhoun, director of student financial services and the university registrar. Colorado State has been phasing in financial-aid packages similar to what will be offered under the new program for several years, she said, with Pell-eligible students already getting aid similar to or better than what the new program will promise. The university prioritizes its lowest-income students when it distributes other aid, including work-study, she said, so under the new program their overall aid could well end up covering more than what the university is promising. Merit scholarships would not be used to meet the tuition costs of any students in the program.

The university extended the program to students whose families make too much to qualify for Pell Grants, she said, because many grant programs use Pell eligibility as a proxy for low-income status—requiring students just above the cutoff to cover substantially more of their costs out of pocket or with loans.

Promises of Grant Aid

The announcement comes on the heels of financial-aid pledges made by dozens of public and private colleges in the last decade, though the flurry of announcements has slowed since the recession struck. The Project on Student Debt tracks institutions that have pledged to limit or eliminate the use of loans in financial-aid packages. There are 55 such pledges by its count. Colorado State's new program would not meet the bar to be included on that list because it does not extend to room and board, said Matt Reed, program director of the Institute for College Access & Success, which runs the Project on Student Debt. A program that covers tuition with grant aid "can be misleading if it leaves students and families with the impression their costs are covered," he said.

At the same time, Mr. Reed said, "it's always a good thing when schools are committed to need-based aid."

Colorado State, Mr. Frank said, views room-and-board costs differently than tuition and fees because students would have to pay for living expenses whether or not they went to college.

The Project on Student Debt is not aware of any colleges that have made new financial-aid pledges that meet its criteria since the fall of 2008. Two colleges scaled back their no-loan pledges this year, but a survey by the Project on Student Debt showed that none of the other colleges on its list were planning big changes.