UChicago student with family member.

What difference does financial aid make?

Three students will tell you: it opened the door to a University of Chicago education and put them on life-changing professional and personal paths.

Jessica Adepoju, AB’14, the daughter of a truck driver and an immigrant, studied philosophy and economics in the College. Her education—as well as an Odyssey scholarship, internship opportunities, and inspiring mentors—led her to a business consulting job after graduation. She hopes it will be the first step toward a career as an entrepreneur.

Sarah Levine-Gronningsater, AM’08, PhD’14, centered her history graduate studies on Northern slavery and emancipation before the American Revolution. With full fellowship support, she was able to focus fully on her work. As she finished her dissertation, she also launched her career, getting both a postdoctoral fellowship and a tenure-track teaching job.

Robert Sanchez, a student at the Pritzker School of Medicine, is committed to improving health care for Latino communities. Scholarships allowed him to develop his career options with less worry about debt from student loans. He plans to continue working with underserved patients as a pediatrician or internist.

Each student at the University embarks on a unique intellectual journey and hopes to make a distinctive contribution to the world after graduation. The University has committed to increasing support so that every student also has the resources they need to take full advantage of a UChicago experience.

In the last decade the University has made robust investments in faculty, students, and programs to ensure both their quality and accessibility. Gifts from alumni, parents, and friends to support Odyssey scholarships, for example, have been critical to making a College education affordable. The University committed more than $100 million to financial aid in the College alone in 2013–14, a nearly 300 percent increase since 2003. Six in 10 College students now receive need-based financial aid.

UChicago’s overall investment in financial aid surpassed $310 million in 2013–14. The commitment, says President Robert J. Zimmer, “represents a broad effort to attract the best students regardless of their financial situation and to help them succeed at ever-higher levels both on and beyond the campus.” The College, graduate programs in the divisions, and professional schools have created and continue to refine models to achieve this goal. And alumni, parents, and friends—through their generosity as donors, volunteers, employers, and mentors—are playing a decisive role.

Investments in College Aid

Krishanu Chatterjee, a third-year Odyssey scholar, is passionate about philosophy and science. Deeply immersed in academics and with opportunities to do lab research and community service, he is thriving at the College. His parents moved in the 1980s from Calcutta, India, to Chicago, where his mother worked as a babysitter and his dad drove a taxi. His story and others like it show the College’s dedication to making undergraduate education available to outstanding students from all backgrounds.

Move-in Day: First-years in the College begin Orientation Week by signing in at Hutchinson Commons.

“Over the last 10 years, the University has made huge progress on how it supports its students,” says James Nondorf, dean of College admissions and financial aid. Odyssey scholarships—which reduce or eliminate loans for undergraduates whose families earn less than $90,000—make a critical difference. Nearly 3,000 students have received the awards since the program was launched in 2008, bringing a world-class opportunity within reach of students who might not otherwise seek it. About three in 10 Odyssey scholars from the Class of 2017 were the first in their family to attend college.

Financial aid policies also aim to keep UChicago affordable for students from moderate-income families. The College is one of just 35 schools in the United States with “need-blind” admissions that meet the full demonstrated financial need for every undergraduate. And the need is real: more than 90 percent of College students in the Class of 2017 received awards when they applied for aid.

Nondorf says he wants to see UChicago attract outstanding undergraduates “from every corner of the world and every socioeconomic background.” Over the last two decades, the College has attracted high-achieving students from across the socioeconomic spectrum and offered more support—career advising, summer research grants, Metcalf internships, and other opportunities—to students regardless of financial need. Two-thirds of College students graduate debt-free. If they borrow, they end up with about 20 percent less debt than the national average. The College enrolls more QuestBridge students—a program for high achieving, low-income undergraduates—than any school in the country.

To further expand access, in 2012 the University announced an initiative called UChicago Promise. The program provides mentoring and academic advising to city of Chicago high school students and prepares them—through Upward Bound, Collegiate Scholars, and a range of enrichment opportunities—to pursue admission at selective four-year colleges. City high school students who apply to UChicago pay no application fee, and every student who is admitted to the College receives a financial aid package that allows them to graduate debt-free.

Still, says Nondorf, many students and families give up on dreams of a college education when they perceive obstacles, particularly financial ones, along the way. This October the University announced an innovative, multifaceted approach to broaden and deepen access to the College. Building on Odyssey and UChicago Promise, a set of initiatives known as No Barriers will replace loans with grants for all students who qualify for need-based aid, eliminate the application fee for families applying for aid, and streamline the aid application process. Related efforts are designed to ensure that all students, including those with the most financial need, are able to fully take part in the College’s distinctive programming.

Support for Graduate and Professional Students

Thanks to the Graduate Aid Initiative, established in 2007, every incoming PhD student in the humanities, social sciences, and divinity receives a competitive funding package. The awards cover full tuition and individual health insurance for five years, a combined stipend and teaching salary, and summer research support.

That’s a change from the past, when departments admitted doctoral students with varying or unpredictable levels of financial support—and sometimes no support at all, says Deborah Nelson, deputy provost for graduate education. Standardized aid packages help doctoral students focus fully on their studies and complete their degrees in a timely fashion. The investment in graduate financial aid has paid off. Attrition rates in PhD programs are roughly half of what they were in the decade prior to the Graduate Aid Initiative. Looking ahead, says Nelson, the University aims to do even more, such as increase living allowances, expand health insurance, provide more funding for advanced students’ dissertation write-up and conference travel, and meet other crucial needs.

The University is also committed to ramping up its support for professional students. To attract and support top applicants—including those interested in public service careers—UChicago’s Law School has nearly tripled its need- and merit-based scholarships in the past four years. Underwritten by a $20 million investment from University trustee David Rubenstein, JD’73, who attended the Law School on a scholarship, the Rubenstein Scholars Program provides full tuition to approximately 10 percent of all students from the Law School classes of 2017, 2018, and 2019. Meanwhile, the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy received a challenge grant in 2014 that will expand fellowships for students from diverse backgrounds. And the Pritzker School of Medicine—where 80 percent of all students receive aid—invested $11 million in scholarships in 2013–14.

Holly Humphrey, MD’83, Pritzker’s dean for medical education, says she wants the school to recruit and support the education and work of the most talented students in the country by taking financial issues off the table. When Humphrey was a student, she received an interest-free Pritzker loan that did not have to be repaid until she finished her residency. Today, she says, “I am absolutely committed to reducing the amount of debt that our students assume.”

Kansas native Alan Schurle, MD’14, took out loans to cover a significant part of his medical education, but the majority of his financial aid came from scholarships.

During medical school, a generous aid package allowed Schurle to spend time volunteering with high school students on the South Side and learn about community health concerns firsthand. He hopes for a career in academic medicine that would combine clinical work, teaching, and research. Graduating with less debt makes that possible. “It’s very freeing to choose a specialty based on what you love doing and what you think you’ll love doing for the rest of your life,” he says, “rather than compensation.”

Alumni as Partners

UChicago has always sought to attract students from all economic backgrounds, says John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, dean of the College. A historian who takes the long view of financial aid, Boyer notes that merit scholarships have been a fixture at the University since the era of President William Rainey Harper, when city high school students who earned top test scores could win scholarships to the College.

Since its founding the University has served students who worked part time to put themselves through school, for whom education was a “social escalator to improve yourself and improve your family’s fortunes,” says Boyer, the Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor in History. “The early student body was very work oriented and self-reliant, but they also took years to finish their degrees.”

Today, he says, the University seeks to remove financial obstacles so that students can follow their intellectual curiosity and graduate in four years—while seizing study abroad, extracurricular, internship, and career exploration opportunities.

In surveys UChicago alumni have reported a high level of satisfaction because their education gave them skills in key categories: writing, independent learning, analytic thinking, understanding art, and creativity. Alumni have shown their satisfaction in another important way, through their philanthropy to support new generations of students.

Since 2007 more than 8,100 donors—the vast majority of them alumni, joined with University parents and friends—have contributed to the Odyssey scholarship program, originally established with a $100 million gift from an anonymous alumnus of the College.

Dayna Langfan, AB’83, endowed an Odyssey scholarship in 2007 with her husband, Lawrence A. Heller, AB’84, MBA’88. The couple was compelled to support the program, she says, because it gave them “the opportunity to enable gifted students—who would otherwise not be able to afford a Chicago education at all—to pursue their academic passions and talents, without being burdened by personal debt during their course of study or upon graduating.”

Nearly 80 percent of Odyssey graduates have made their own gifts to the College, usually modest, as they begin to earn their first salaries. As Odyssey scholar Lizbeth Córdova, AB’13, prepared to graduate, she made a small donation and said she hoped to contribute to the education of future students. A political science and sociology major, she was raised in an immigrant family from Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood.

Financial aid offers broad access to a UChicago education, giving students rigorous preparation for their lives and careers and the chance to transform not only their own trajectories, but also to make meaningful contributions to society.

“There was no possible way for me to attend the University of Chicago without this scholarship,” says Córdova, who works for a Chicago law firm and is training to be a paralegal. “This award has changed my life, and it will continue to do so.”