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As headlines warn of student debt, private institutions, with the help of philanthropy, can make college attainable.

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For generations, higher education has been a means of helping people fulfill their potential, changing the trajectories of families, and providing the foundation for an economically innovative and vital society. As technology advances and global competition increases, higher education as an engine for discovery and progress will continue to gain importance, and the need for a quality college degree will gain added urgency.

Recent headlines about mounting student debt suggest that college degrees are slipping out of reach for many people. But the story of college costs changes dramatically depending on the nature of the institution. Private and public universities, for-profit entities, and small liberal-arts colleges each face very different circumstances. At the University of Chicago, like many of the nation’s other leading private universities, we have worked for years to make our distinctive education more accessible and affordable. And these efforts have been remarkably successful.

Our approach to undergraduate access is deeply embedded in our admissions and financial-aid policies. We are among a small number of colleges across the country with a need-blind admissions policy. Family finances are not considered when we make admissions decisions. For each admitted student, the University constructs a financial-aid package that meets the student’s demonstrated need. Because about half of our College students are on financial aid, when tuition increases, the University actually collects the increase from about half the students, with the rest borne by an increase in the University financial-aid budget. Moreover, even though financial-aid packages have enabled many students to attend, we have systematically and dramatically improved these aid packages over recent years.

As a result, over the past decade, the amount of financial aid provided by the University to students in the College has nearly tripled, from $30 million in 2001 to $87.1 million in 2011. The average annual UChicago need-based grant has more than doubled, from $14,546 in 2001 to $32,050 in 2011. Fifty-nine percent of College students receive need-based or merit-based aid. And 66 percent of College students graduate debt free; at $22,663, the average debt of those who do take out loans is well below the national average and has declined by 18 percent since 2007–08.

Financial aid is, of course, a human story. It’s a story about people like Youssef Kalad, AB’12, who immigrated with his family to the United States from Egypt when he was six years old. Kalad served as president of Student Government his senior year and graduated this spring with a degree in public policy studies.

Like almost 2,000 other students, Kalad benefitted from the Odyssey Scholarship program. Initially funded by a $100 million gift from an anonymous alumnus dubbed “Homer,” the Odyssey program provides grants to students from families with low to moderate incomes, enabling them to pursue a Chicago education without crippling debt. The gift was structured as a challenge, requiring other donors to help fund the Odyssey endowment. To meet Homer’s challenge, the University trustees created a matching program for gifts to fund that endowment. Supporters of the Odyssey program so far have surpassed our expectations, reflecting the UChicago community’s deep commitment to the importance of financial aid.

Kalad received the Kouji Yamada Odyssey Scholarship and explains, “This scholarship, with that personal donor name on it, has meant the world to me. I’m fiercely ambitious and I try to work hard, but at the end of the day, without outside support like this, all of that would mean absolutely nothing.”

The priority we have placed on financial aid touches students in graduate and professional programs as well. It includes University-led programs such as the Graduate Aid Initiative, which was established in 2007 and commits $50 million over six years to graduate-student support in the humanities, social sciences, and the Divinity School. 

It also includes generous gifts from our alumni. In 2010 University trustee David Rubenstein, JD’73, made a $10 million gift to the Law School, the largest scholarship effort in the school’s history. As a student, Rubenstein came to the University to study law with a full-tuition National Honor Scholarship. Accepted at other universities, he chose Chicago because of the financial-aid package. Now the cofounder and managing director of the Carlyle Group, one of the world’s largest private-equity firms, Rubenstein describes himself as “extremely lucky” and says, “Whatever I can give back will be only a modest repayment for my good fortune.”

Beginning in fall 2011, the David M. Rubenstein Scholars Program provides 60 of the nation’s top students—20 entering students per year for the classes of 2014, 2015, and 2016—with full-tuition merit scholarships covering all three years of their studies. Dean Michael Schill has called the gift “a game changer,” raising quality across the board. Rubenstein Scholars are turning down other leading law schools in large numbers to come to Chicago.

University of Chicago alumni like Homer and Rubenstein are the major reason why we have been able to improve our financial-aid programs so dramatically. Whether it is an Odyssey Scholarship, a Rubenstein Scholarship, a Herman Family Fellowship for business students at Chicago Booth, a Pritzker Fellowship in medicine, or any number of other scholarships and fellowships across campus, each honors the generous gifts of alumni who recognize the distinctive education that they received and respond by extending strengthened opportunities to future generations.

Each scholarship also represents the great philanthropic tradition that lies at the heart of this university and continues today. In fact, Kalad and 14 other Odyssey Scholars served on the 2012 Senior Class Gift Committee, which set a new record for the number of students participating. All told, 940 students—80 percent of the senior class—gave more than $60,000 for the College Fund, part of which supports financial aid and scholarships. In the University’s last fundraising campaign, which concluded in 2008, our alumni contributed nearly $160 million to graduate- and undergraduate-student financial aid.

This is why we continue to turn to our alumni for your support. You know best the value of a University of Chicago education. You recognize the opportunities that your education has catalyzed. And you understand the potential that your education has helped you to realize.

In his 1974 State of the University remarks, University of Chicago president Edward Levi, PhB’32, JD’35, said, “We do not regard the learning process as having ended for anyone.” That process continues through your lifelong connection to and support of the University of Chicago. Your collective legacy will be carried on by generations to come. 

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