Institute for Policy Research Director and professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach reflects on her Northwestern direction — and the value of interdisciplinary research.
“Some of us come from families
who have done this before.
Some of us are the first to walk through this door.
Some of us don’t have the family that others do.
Some of us didn’t know whether or not
they’d make it through.”
— Nolan Robinson ’21
At Northwestern’s virtual Commencement last June, Nolan Robinson opened his student address with a poem (above) that captured the essence of his Northwestern experience. “That entire speech really is a reflection of everything that has happened to me here, with the lessons I learned about knowing that I’m enough, that I don’t need to prove anything to anyone, that I belong here, that I’m worthy and that my voice is powerful,” says Robinson ’21.
Robinson grew up a few miles from the Evanston campus and often attended — and acted in — Northwestern theater productions as a child. The Evanston Township High School (ETHS) graduate never really considered attending the University because of its proximity to home — and its cost.
“I don’t come from a rich family,” he says. “And I have a twin sister who was going into college at the same time. I knew I needed to be cognizant of how much my family would be spending for my education.”
Robinson was part of Evanston Scholars, an ETHS program for aspiring first-generation college students from low-income backgrounds. One day his Evanston Scholars mentor, Liane Anderson ’82, spelled it out for him.
“She said, ‘Go to Northwestern. It’s a full-needs-met school,’” Robinson recalls. “I didn’t really know what that meant. I’m like, ‘OK, well, it’s still pretty expensive.’
“She says, ‘Nolan, Northwestern will meet 100% of your financial need.’”
Once that sunk in, “there was no way I could say no to this,” says Robinson, who graduated with zero debt, thanks to Northwestern’s no-loan financial aid package. “I would not have enjoyed my time here as much if I was always worried about paying a bill or needing to pay back all those loans. My mind wouldn’t have been focused on the moment, on growing as a person, as an artist, as a human being.”
REMAKING THE STUDENT BODY
Financial need is not a factor in determining admission to Northwestern, and the University is among a small group of institutions that meets the full demonstrated need of its financial aid applicants. More than $200 million in aid is awarded annually to thousands of undergraduates — assistance that opens the doors to students who otherwise could not afford to attend.
Throughout his tenure, President Morton Schapiro has worked to open those doors even wider.
Most notably, Schapiro pushed to increase the number of Federal Pell Grant recipients, aiming for 20% of the incoming class by 2020. The University hit that goal in 2019 — and with every incoming class since. (Students whose total family income is $50,000 a year or less qualify for Pell Grants.)
The University also established the Northwestern Academy, a free college access and enrichment program for underrepresented, academically motivated high school students from Chicago and Evanston, and the Good Neighbor, Great University Scholarship program, which provides financial aid to students, like Robinson, from Evanston or Chicago. Students from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) now make up nearly 6% of the incoming class, up from just 3% a decade ago. Thanks to these initiatives, first-generation college students comprise more than 15% of the class of 2025.
To a large degree, financial aid initiatives have helped remake the undergraduate student body. Socioeconomically, racially and geographically, the class of 2025 is the most diverse incoming cohort in University history. “Northwestern is a different and better place because of the assistance the University is providing,” says Chris Watson, dean of undergraduate enrollment and associate vice president for student outreach.
“We have a larger number of low-income students on campus [than in years past],” says Phil Asbury, director of the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid. “And oftentimes, if you come from a less affluent background, you have a different perspective. It makes us all more empathetic toward one another. All of our students benefit from that.”
IMPACT OF AID
“My mom knew that the No. 1 opportunity would be sending me to a good university,” says Jason Weber ’20, who grew up as an only child in Creve Coeur, Mo. “But it was always a question of, how are we going to afford it?”
His mother, Cheryl, a single parent and special education teacher, sometimes worked three jobs to provide for the family. She never took vacations and seldom spent money on herself so that she and Weber could afford to live in the Ladue School District, one of the best in the St. Louis area.
Still, the prospect of paying for college was “an unbelievably big stressor,” Weber says. “And seeing that stress get essentially erased by the generosity of Northwestern was unbelievably relieving.”
Financial aid made a Northwestern degree possible for Weber. “A lot of hard work, perseverance and sacrifice put me in a position to go to a school like Northwestern,” he says, “and Northwestern made possible all sorts of opportunities that I never imagined when I was growing up.”
He certainly made the most of his opportunities. The first in his family to go to college, Weber majored in economics and political science. During his junior year he studied abroad in Paris for a quarter — a trip funded by Northwestern.
“I had never had the chance to travel internationally,” says Weber, now a consultant at Strategy& in Chicago who also has a deferred enrollment at the Kellogg School of Management. “That international experience opened my mind to other cultures, other possibilities, other perspectives. It helped me become a more educated global citizen. It was one thing to learn about Brexit [while living] in Evanston, versus going to European Union institutions and talking with some high-level people about the real-life implications of that policy decision.
“That trip brought everything to life and showed me what was possible.”
ENGINE OF SOCIAL MOBILITY
The price of a Northwestern education in 2020–21, including tuition, fees, housing and meals, is more than $80,000 per year.
“Typically, students see this sticker price and think, ‘There’s no way that can be an institution for me. That’s way out of reach,’” says Jackie Marthouse ’15, former senior assistant director of admissions. “But with our need-based financial aid program, we’re able to say, ‘No, you can afford it because, based on your financial situation, you only need to pay this portion. We’ll cover the rest.’” (Marthouse became director of enrollment marketing and communication at the University of Denver in October.)
The ability to give a student access to a Northwestern education sets them on a different path. “From a social mobility perspective,” Marthouse says, “we’re seeing students who come from incredibly low-income backgrounds and graduate from Northwestern debt-free. Then they lock themselves into careers that potentially put them in different income brackets or different socioeconomic statuses than what they came from.”
After determining the expected family contribution — a formula-derived measure of a family’s financial strength — Northwestern meets full financial need using a combination of need-based scholarships, grants and part-time work, but no federal student loans.
With support from Schapiro, the University implemented a policy to meet each student’s full financial need without loans, starting in 2016–17.
“That relieves the burden of borrowing,” Asbury says. “Many low-income families are averse to borrowing, and that can be a barrier to them even considering a school like Northwestern.”
The University is one of just 19 institutions in the U.S. that are need-blind (or do not consider an applicant’s financial situation) in their admissions processes, meet full demonstrated need for domestic students and offer no-loan financial aid packages.
“This policy has accelerated our efforts to recruit and enroll students with as diverse an array of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives as possible,” Watson says.
Nearly 50% of all undergraduate students receive a Northwestern University Scholarship as part of the no-loan program. Overall, more than 60% of all undergrads receive some form of financial aid. Some students still take out private loans to replace a portion of the expected family contribution. However, since the implementation of the no-loan program, the percentage of seniors graduating from Northwestern with student loan debt has dropped by 45%.
Hannah Whitehouse ’20 had Northwestern on her radar ever since eighth grade, when she discovered that the University has a strong program in music education.
“Without financial aid, Northwestern would have been totally impossible,” says Whitehouse, now a middle school orchestra instructor in her hometown of Memphis. “Tuition itself was nearly twice as much as my household was making at the time I applied.”
Her financial aid package made Northwestern cheaper than many of the in-state schools she applied to. If it had not been for Northwestern’s assistance, Whitehouse says, she would have gone to college in Tennessee, lived at home and worked several jobs to make ends meet.
“But Northwestern went above and beyond,” says Whitehouse, the first of her siblings to graduate from high school and the first in her family to go to college. “It was insane. I was basically on a full ride.”
Thanks to financial aid, “I was able to enjoy my college experience, be a real student.” Free to explore, Whitehouse traveled the world, participating in Northwestern’s Global Engagement Studies Institute after her freshman year. “I’d never left the country before, and here I was living in a rural village in Kenya for six weeks,” she says.
Then Whitehouse taught stringed instruments to children during a weeklong trip to Panama during junior year. Finally, the summer before senior year, she set out on a 10-week, six-country trip to research El Sistema, a global public music education program, on a Circumnavigators Travel-Study Grant, a program made possible by the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Chicago chapter of the Circumnavigators Club.
“I learned more about the world and what possibilities I have career-wise,” says Whitehouse, who spent summer 2021 teaching English in Israel. “I always wanted to be a music teacher, but since graduating I’m seeing ways that I can advocate for music education even on a higher level. [I’m amazed by] the sheer number of jobs out there and how achievable they are given the fact that I went to Northwestern and made the connections that I did.”
Whitehouse acknowledges, though, that she encountered struggles as a lower-income student. “Relationally, it was still challenging at times being around people who come from money and who grew up differently,” she says. “The [financial aid] didn’t fix everything — but it freed up so much of my brain space and free time to study hard and make good friends and participate on campus.”
When reflecting on his time at Northwestern, Nolan Robinson echoes Whitehouse’s views. He says his Commencement address to fellow graduates was “100% honest” about the joys and challenges he experienced as a first-generation, lower-income Black student at Northwestern.
“I made the right decision choosing to go to Northwestern,” he says. “At the same time, not everything is rosy and peachy.”
Indeed, financial aid is just the beginning. Making the Northwestern experience accessible to all is a priority for the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid and other partners in the Division of Student Affairs, including Campus Inclusion and Community (CIC) and Student Enrichment Services (SES), as well as Northwestern Career Advancement (NCA).
Assistance comes in many forms. The Knight Community Scholars Program, for example, provides four years of individual and group advising, community-building opportunities, workshops and programming for a cohort of first-generation, lower-income (FGLI) students, undocumented students, and students in the U.S. as part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The Student Activities and Assistance Fund, provided by Student Organizations & Activities, allows recipients to fully participate in their student organizations’ programs. The Purple Pantry, run by SES and the Sheil Catholic Center, keeps students from going hungry.
The Summer Internship Grant Program, an NCA endeavor, offers funding that makes taking unpaid internships possible. NCA also provides funds for interview travel or assistance in acquiring professional attire. SES and NCA, in collaboration with the Northwestern Alumni Association, also host Work the Room, a career development series focused on fostering networking skills and connecting students with FGLI alumni from various industries.
The financial aid office also provides $1,500 in startup funding to help first-year students from lower-income backgrounds pay for travel expenses, buy new bedsheets or cover the cost of a new laptop, even before they arrive on campus. And emergency aid is available upon request to cover unexpected medical bills.
“Students need their basic needs met before they can engage in ways that are both intellectually stimulating and developmentally appropriate,” says Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson, assistant vice president for inclusion and chief of staff in the Division of Student Affairs. “Providing a coat, making sure students have meals to eat — those things are foundational. But that’s just the foundation. It’s not where we aspire to be as a community. We want to champion a culture where all students thrive.”
Through physical spaces on campus — including the Black House, the Multicultural Center and the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center — and programmatic offerings, the student affairs team is helping students develop a sense of belonging and make the connections necessary to navigate Northwestern’s campus and community.
“We have a responsibility to our students, particularly our students of marginalized identities, to make sure that they feel seen, that they have opportunities to explore their identities and engage across lines of difference, as well as celebrate their cultures and who they are,” says Brown-Henderson. “CIC plays a really important role in ensuring that students who are Black, Indigenous and people of color, first-generation students, lower-income students, undocumented students, and LGBTQIA students have a space that’s carved out just for them.”
Going forward, the University’s financial aid and student affairs teams continue listening to students and looking for opportunities for improvement.
“CIC was created for students and by students,” Brown-Henderson says. “And when I think back, there’s traditionally been a call and response. So the students make their voices heard, and the University, sometimes more speedily than other times, responds. We’re starting to anticipate some of our students’ needs so our response becomes not only reactive but proactive.”
In spring 2020 Northwestern and the world faced the effects of a global pandemic, a catastrophe that no one could have anticipated. In response, the financial aid office created a special COVID-19 emergency aid fund that helped about 2,000 students in less than a month, providing funding for emergency travel and technology expenses.
School of Education and Social Policy senior Daniel Rodriguez received funding to improve his unreliable Wi-Fi. “I had terrible internet at home and knew that my laptop was definitely not going to be able to handle Zoom classes,” says Rodriguez, who hails from Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood. “I was able to get technology assistance for Zoom learning. And it made it possible for me to do a remote internship this summer with a U.S. district judge in New York City.”
Rodriguez, who participated in the Northwestern Academy and received a Good Neighbor, Great University Scholarship, says he has been pleased to see the changes that have resulted from a University-wide focus on doing more for lower-income students.
“I’ve seen Northwestern try to prioritize its outreach for students of marginalized backgrounds more and more every year — partly as a consequence of students on campus being frustrated with the current systems and advocating for better [ones],” he says. “There’s obviously still a lot more work to be done, but I think the University is really trying to get this right.”
Sean Hargadon is editor in chief of Northwestern Magazine.