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ISSUE 116 VOL 4 PUBLISHED 10/4/2002

Expanding beyond the middle class

By Annie Rzepecki
Contributing Writer

Friday, October 4, 2002

Low socioeconomic status is often a barrier for college-bound students, but St. Olaf recruits students from all backgrounds and offers financial assistance to those who could otherwise not afford to attend St. Olaf College.

President Christopher Thomforde said that St. Olaf “attracts students from all socioeconomic backgrounds by offering a first-rate, national, liberal arts education.”

St. Olaf’s mission statement concedes that it “strives to be an inclusive community, respecting those of differing backgrounds and beliefs.”

However, economic and cultural barriers often prevent talented students from attending expensive liberal arts colleges. About ten percent of students at St. Olaf come from families that earn less than $35,000 a year, whereas the majority (35 percent) come from families that make more than $100,000 per year.

It is generally true that students who attend liberal arts colleges come from well-off families. However, Jeff McLaughlin, director of admissions, said that recent statistics show that “the median St. Olaf income was less than that of students at the University of Minnesota.”

McLaughlin also noted that the percentage of first generation college students at St. Olaf is 15 percent, meaning those students have parents that never graduated from a four-year college.

An estimated “40 to 45 percent of St. Olaf students are from suburbs, 25 percent from cities, and the rest from small towns,” McLaughlin said. “In terms of socioeconomic diversity, students from small towns are a valuable addition to campus,” he added.

Vice President and Dean of Enrollment Barbara Lundberg said, “we visit high schools in all types of communities ranging from inner-city urban communities to affluent rural suburbs.”

According to McLaughlin, St. Olaf did college fairs in over 35 states last year, and visited over 570 high schools. “The vast majority of these were not suburban,” said McLaughlin. “We continue to actively expand our outreach efforts and diversity on campus.”

McLaughlin added that St. Olaf is recruiting in places it previously did not. He said that St. Olaf is working to “convince the counseling offices that we are a good option for all qualified students, regardless of their ability to pay the full stated cost of St. Olaf.”

St. Olaf offers financial assistance to many families. The admissions office works with programs like Admissions Possible, Educational Talent Search, and Upward Bound. The TRIO scholarship is available to “first generation, low income college-bound students,” McLaughlin said. There is also $10 million Fram! Fram! Forward St. Olaf Scholarship Fund that grants scholarships and other forms of financial aid.

“Our community has always held that talent, not money, should open our doors.” This statement is on the St. Olaf website as part of the college’s goal to seek out a distinctive student body. But it goes on to say, “In recent years, however, our student financial aid program has been hard-pressed to close the gap between the escalating costs of higher education and the average family’s financial resources.”

The average annual 5.9 percent increase in St. Olaf tuition demonstrates this difficulty. Roughly 18 percent of the St. Olaf budget goes to financial aid, and about 62 percent of St. Olaf students receive need-based aid.

Furthermore, federal and state funding for private colleges is declining. In a national report, college enrollment for students of low socioeconomic status dropped 12 percent between 1998 and 2001. Minnesota also incurred one of the largest declines in the number of low-income students going to college.

Despite this decline, low-income students from Minnesota face a better chance of going to college than do low-income students from most other states. Thirty-six percent of students from low-income families in Minnesota attend college, compared with the national average of 23 percent.

The state has also cut $12.4 million in work-study money, which could affect St. Olaf students.

“I worry that prolonged weakness in the economy may force the state legislature to look this way for cuts again, which will hurt the students who need the money most,” McLaughlin said.

Despite the financial aid cuts, President Thomforde reiterated the fact that St. Olaf meets full demonstrated financial need. “We are one of the few colleges that meets 100 percent of a student’s financial need,” he said.

St. Olaf is also need-blind when admitting students, meaning that a family’s financial situation has no effect on the student’s admission. Because of this, Lundberg says, “We are able to attract a broad array of students who will benefit from a St. Olaf education.”

Everyone agreed that there is room for improvement in St. Olaf’s recruiting strategies. “Can we improve? Of course we can,” said Lundberg. “And we continue to work to develop programs to help us remain accessible to all students.”

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