As the global economic crisis affects more families, the cost of a college education can become more daunting. Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Undergraduate and Graduate Admissions James Nondorf and his team of admissions and financial aid officers are helping both current and future Rensselaer students afford a Rensselaer education, and understand the growing options available to them.
Even as the crisis continues, Rensselaer has seen the largest surge in applications in the history of the Institute, with a 115 percent increase in applications since 2005. Vice President Nondorf took a short break from reading applications to discuss the changing dynamics of financial aid at Rensselaer, and the factors contributing to the increased interest in Rensselaer.
Q: What are the areas that you oversee?
A: My office oversees undergraduate and graduate admissions and financial aid. As the managers of financial aid for our students, we help students finance their education through a combination of resources, including their own, their parents’, and the government’s, and resources from Rensselaer. Assistance can come from endowed or donated funds, Rensselaer financial aid funds, and different programs available through the government, including loan programs such as Perkins Loans, grant programs such as Pell Grants, and work study programs.
Q: Why has the number of applications to Rensselaer risen so significantly?
A: Each year we aim for a class of around 1,300 students. This year we have 12,300 applications to review for those few spots. And in the applications and essays we are constantly hearing feedback from prospective students on their eagerness to join a particular faculty researcher or take part in a new program like gaming simulation or the growth of EMPAC, or use the laboratories of the Biotechnology Center. And we often hear from our prospective computer science majors who are just itching to use the power of the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Initiatives. We will hear over and over again about the investments we have made in terms of facilities and platforms. That really resonates when you look through thousands of these applications from students simply hoping for the chance to join Rensselaer. It really is something for all of us here on campus, particularly the students who are already here, to be proud of.
Q: What is the typical incoming Rensselaer student like?
A: Well, we obviously have all the statistics on SAT scores and class ranking, but as anyone who is part of this community knows, it goes much deeper than that. I would say that Rensselaer students are intellectually curious, mathematically inclined, and resolute in their ability to find solutions to the world’s problems.
Q: How have those areas been impacted by the changing economic climate?
A: We have continued to see a strong increase in applications and interest from students from around the country. We have seen more families applying for a waiver of the application fee, but primarily our applicant pool has not been impacted by the crisis. We continue to see a surge of interest in attending Rensselaer.
We have seen impacts in the financial aid area from both the current and incoming students our office supports. As this economic crisis continues to affect more and more people, we are increasingly hearing from students whose parents lost jobs or whose investments set aside for tuition have been cut in half, or worse. We are working with each of these families directly, and we have created a $2 million emergency financial aid fund to deal with such rapidly changing financial circumstances. In total, we have already been able to assist more than 400 students whose financial situations were unexpectedly altered this year.
Q: What percentage of Rensselaer students receive financial aid?
A: About 90 percent of Rensselaer students receive aid of some sort, either merit- or need-based.
Q: Where does the funding for financial aid come from?
A: Rensselaer financial aid comes from several different sources. One is endowed funds, which are donations, often from Rensselaer alumni and alumnae, to create scholarships that Rensselaer manages and distributes to students. A unique form of endowed financial aid funding is the Patroon Scholars Program that allows our donors to personally support the education of individual Rensselaer undergraduates. In addition to donated funds, Rensselaer also draws financial aid funding for students from the general operations budget. It is for this reason that the changes that have taken place to reduce spending and reallocate funding at Rensselaer, although difficult, have gone a long way to directly aiding the students who have the greatest need of financial assistance.
Q: With many families going through economic hardship at this time, what is Rensselaer doing to ensure they can still afford an education here?
A: We have increased the financial aid budget by $20 million over the last five years. In addition, we have created a $2 million emergency fund for those who encounter financial issues when they attend Rensselaer. We also continue to raise scholarship funds through our generous individual benefactors, as well as companies, and we continue to maximize funding through both federal and state programs.
Q: Do you think the Obama administration will help increase financial support for families?
A: Positive changes have already occurred and, in general, the new administration is making substantial investments to make higher education more accessible to more people. Some of the most promising details of the package include a $17 billion increase in Pell Grant funding; a $2,500 tax credit for families earning less than $160,000 with a family member in college; and a 20 percent increase in the federal work study program.
Q: The financial aid process can be very emotional and confusing. How do you make the process easier for students and their families?
A: First, we send each admitted student’s financial aid package with the admissions letter. This gives them a complete idea of the options available to them at Rensselaer. Because the process can sometimes be confusing, we make sure that our financial aid officers are just a phone call away. We have special call-in nights for families who have a hard time calling during regular office hours due to their own jobs. During admitted student days the financial aid office works individually with students and their families on their own financial issues. We also help explain the often-confusing government aspect of financial aid and help process student loans.
Q: Rensselaer graduates have a rich history of service to their country in the armed forces. What sort of programs are in place for current or future service members?
A: I am proud to say that we hold a leadership position in this area. I believe we are the first university that will be admitting veterans and their families this coming year under the Yellow Ribbon provision of the new GI Bill. These veterans and their families will attend Rensselaer as freshmen, transfer students, and graduate students at no cost to the student. Rensselaer will match the funds provided by the government, making the cost of attendance essentially free. In addition, these students do not have an application fee, and they have their own dedicated admissions officer, an expedited admission process, and a huge number of ROTC offerings available to them.
In addition, we support those students who enter the ROTC program, who are our future service members, with room and board scholarships through financial aid, which is in addition to the funding that they receive through the armed services.