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Studying as An Investment

By Peter R. Kerrigan und Leslie Harlson

The importance of the scholarship and foundation culture in the United States.

Studying as an investment© acilo - iStockphoto.comThose who wish to study in the USA require a well thought-out financial strategy

In the United States, student funding is based on three cornerstones: scholarships, loans and income from employment. It quickly becomes apparent that the wide range of funding options for university applicants is a science in itself. Insights into the extremely confusing American scholarship and foundation jungle.

How will I fund my degree? Every American applicant for a university place has to ask him- or herself this question. And the differences in cost between American higher education institutions are often just as broad and confusing as the range of scholarships with which a degree can be funded. In addition to a convincing application, those who want to attend university therefore also need a well thought-out financial strategy. In the USA, both topics - the application process and funding - are covered by consultants, who provide comprehensive information on courses, admission requirements and application deadlines as well as on scholarship and loan options.

The most important organisations in this field include the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions (AACRAO), the National Association for College Admission Counselling (NACAC), the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) and the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), who support their members, applicants and their parents in the necessary decision-making processes.

Enormous breadth of funding options

University applicants in the USA generally know what they are letting themselves in for in terms of cost. On the other hand there is also a comprehensive and diverse foundation and scholarship culture in the country which runs alongside the higher education system and which in view of the exorbitant costs often plays a very decisive role. Nonetheless: students and their parents have to bear the majority of the cost of a degree themselves. Most of them however do not question this, but consider course fees and living expenses during their time at university an investment in their personal future. The College Board, which has organised numerous expert panels on the subject of 'Reforming Student Aid', names three cornerstones of US study funding:
Scholarships: Scholarships do not have to be repaid, and scholarship holders are not required to do anything in return (for example in the form of student work). Scholarships are awarded, among others, by the American federal government, by the federal states, but also by universities and foundations. The latter offer a wide range of funding options, the application requirements for which may range from academic through extracurricular achievements to ethnic, religious or other affiliations.

Loans: The federal government provides students who demonstrate a corresponding financial need with low-interest loans that have to be repaid only after the degree has been completed. Banks also offer individually tailored loans for students.

Work: Employment opportunities for students at the various universities and the "work-study" programme of the federal government fall into the category of "financial aid" in the USA. Students work up to 15 hours a week on campus and fund their studies through jobs at their institutes, in the library or the cafeteria. In order to access financial support for their degree, most students initially contact their university administration, where they can apply for state funding by filling in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form (www.fafsa.ed.gov» ). Similarly to Germany's Bafög, FAFSA supports students by awarding loans or income-dependent subsidies.

Second in popularity are scholarships from the universities themselves. In addition to these "main lines" there are foundations of every shade and orientation: they fund members of certain faiths or religious denominations, children of educators or miners, African-Americans or Native Americans, female engineering students or students from Alaska...the range of funding options is huge, and the search for an individually suitable foundation often accordingly complex and confusing.

One example of a country-wide, non-state scholarship programme for prospective students is the National Merit Scholarship Program. Of 1.5 million applicants, 8200 aspiring students a year receive a one-off award of $2500. The selection process consists of several stages: In a first round, a certain number of points must be achieved in a standardised test (PSAT); the approximately 15,000 finalists are then individually assessed. Evaluation criteria include academic achievement, leadership qualities, extracurricular activities, a letter of recommendation and an exposé written by the applicant. The capital available to foundations for student scholarships in the USA is however closely connected to the vitality of the overall economy. According to ACT, a not-for-profit company that manages and develops scholarship programmes for foundations and companies, the financial crisis of 2009 led to a 5% reduction in overall scholarship volume.

And even if there is no complete compilation of scholarship providers, let alone a database with precise figures on awarded scholarships, numerous individual reports demonstrate that the currently difficult situation of the economy and the financial markets in the USA is affecting the availability of supplementary loans for students and their families. According to this year's "Chronicle of Philanthropy" report, 25% of Americans have reduced their philanthropic activities.

Debt equivalent to the value of a house

Susan Hansler from Ohio, whose daughter Jennifer is currently completing her final year at high school and intends to apply to several colleges, explains her application strategy as follows: "Ultimately, the decision is a financial matter for Jennifer and for us. Ideally she will choose a university that makes her and us a realistic financial offer ("financial aid package") that keeps her debt after graduation as low as possible. We are specifically looking for universities that have their own well-endowed foundation and a good academic reputation. In addition we will be looking around for other suitable foundations." Mrs Hansler wants to avoid her daughter finding herself in debt equivalent to the value of a house when she graduates. This example reflects the "customer mentality" of American students (and their parents), who see a university degree mainly as an investment, very well. An enormous range of funding options awaits the Hansler family, and it is already clear that student aid for their daughter will come from several sources, not least from various foundations.

"Jennifer is aware that she has to work not only on writing a great essay for her university application, but also on the application requirements for various foundations", says Mrs Hansler. "My husband and I are searching the Internet together with Jennifer to see what funding options even exist for us. We've already compiled a list of foundations."

Continuously attracting new funding

"At smaller colleges or universities", explains Thomas Kleinet, deputy manager of the graduate admissions office of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University, "there is a central department for admissions, a central department for funding, one for alumni work, and even one for fundraising if it isn't part of the alumni department's remit. Here this is all decentralised. Each school at NYU has its own department for admissions and for alumni work." All these offices - from admissions through financial aid and alumni work all the way to fundraising - have to cooperate with each other. The staffing levels and budgets of each of the offices in turn depends on the size of the higher education institution and its funding from state, municipal, or private sources. Some larger higher education institutions for example have fundraising offices that deal exclusively with corporations.

General statements on the structure and remit of such offices are not possible. What they all have in common however is the shared aim of constantly attracting new funding - for scholarships, a new sports hall or even a professorship. The higher education institutions most successful at attracting donations are generally those that have a large staff of full-time employees who work exclusively in alumni research and funding acquisition. In the jargon, these employees are often referred to as "prospect researchers". Without full-time posts on the other hand universities are far less successful in attracting funding.

From Forschung und Lehre :: October 2010