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Union College Partnering With Foundation To Increase Low-Income Student Enrollment

Union College President David Harris.jpg
Jackie Orchard/WAMC
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Union College President David Harris

Union College in Schenectady is partnering with a private foundation to invest up to $40 million to enroll more low-income students. The Schuler Education Foundation is working with four other schools on the effort, including Tufts University in Massachusetts. WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Union College President David Harris about the effort.

Harris: So it's focused on students with Pell Grants. And Pell students – think about folks whose family income is under $50,000. That's not exact, but that's the range we're talking about. We have on the order of 75 students each year, out of our 570 or so, who are Pell eligible students. This will allow us to add 10 more students a year in perpetuity, because these funds will be endowment, so we'll use the interest. So this is forever, we will have a lot more students here at Union College who are lower income.

Levulis: And will the program pay for all the costs associated with going to Union…tuition, boarding, etc.?

Harris: So Union is one of the fewer than 100 schools in the country that commits to meeting 100% of demonstrated financial need. So we look at how much wealth the family has, earnings, students and so forth, and then say, all right, well, that's how much they can cover, we got to deal with the rest. And we have a cap on loans. And then the rest of it is grant aid. And so between work study grants, and so forth, this will allow students to come to Union College meeting 100% of demonstrated needs.

Levulis: And I understand this $40 million pot of money, $20 million will come from the Schuler Education Foundation, the other $20 million to be raised by Union College. How far along is Union on that $20 million?

Harris: So yes, that's correct. It's a one to one match, which is unheard of especially from a foundation, individuals who have no connection to Union College previously. So we just started. We were just approved July 1 and at this point, we're north of $3 million towards our $20 million goal. We have five years to get there and I'm really excited about the progress we've made in just a few months that we've known that it was something we were going to be doing.

Levulis: Now President Harris, you yourself are a first generation college student, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees from Northwestern. You also received a Pell Grant, I understand, when you were in college. So is this type of initiative personal for you?

Harris: It is. And I would just note that I was able to find my financial aid paperwork from 30-plus years ago to confirm I did indeed have a Pell Grant. It's very personal in that I’ve seen in my own life, there's no way I could have gone to Northwestern University and pursued my dreams, if it weren't for financial aid, and Pell grants were a significant part of that. And similarly, I've seen over the last, really 16 years, which I’ve been an academic administrator, so many students who've just been amazing, and all they were lacking was family wealth. And when they were able to come to these schools where I've worked, I've just seen them thrive. I've seen them have positive impacts on the campuses. And I've been around long enough that I've seen them do incredible things after graduating. So it's very personal.

Levulis: When you combine that experience as a student, and then also as an administrator, and then couple it with this announcement here….what does this need for this private investment to enroll low income students indicate to you about the affordability of higher education today in the US?

Harris: Well, clearly higher education is quite expensive. It varies across schools. One of the things that's really important and this does emphasize is that folks just look at the sticker price. So for example, you look at Union College and say Union is $75-76,000 a year. Wow, you know, there's some other school that's a public institution, or even some privates that are less expensive, I can't afford to go to Union. What this is telling you is like me with Northwestern 35 years ago and students now, it all depends on the financial aid, that the actual out of pocket for you may well be a lot less at a school that has a high sticker price than a school that has a low sticker price. So that is one of the things I hope people will focus on, because especially if you're like me, I was a first gen. That’s just not a world we knew and so we didn't appreciate that fact.

Levulis: And on the other side of that question, what does this effort or efforts like it, say to you about the federal government's support for higher education and also state governments’?

Harris: Yeah, well we’ve partnered with a number of schools trying to increase Pell support. It's a great investment in our country. As I’ve said there's a lot of these students who they've done everything they need to do to succeed and contribute. They just don't have family wealth. And so if we can invest in those students, relatively small amounts of money is having a big return for our society.

Levulis: And then finally, President just wanted to ask you this as it's on the top of mind seemingly with every conversation. Union is several weeks into a new semester amid the COVID-19 pandemic still. How is the college faring in terms of cases among students and staff this semester?

Harris: So it's gone really well for us thus far. I did require everyone at the school to be vaccinated or to have a religious or medical exemption, over 99% of the people on this campus are vaccinated. We are still wearing masks in class and in most meetings. We're not wearing masks, or masks are optional, always could wear a mask, outdoors or indoors in rooms and dorms. And thus far we've tested twice everybody and we were sitting at, you know, under 20 cases, lower 15. And so we're really pleased but if we learned anything last year from COVID, it is you know, you can't rest. Just when you think everything's good is when all of a sudden there's a spike somewhere. So we have to remain vigilant. But I'm pleased that we're able to have everybody here on campus, no virtual classes, and get back to our core mission of helping to develop every student to lead throughout multiple tomorrows.

Levulis: You mentioned the small percentage of students and staff there are not vaccinated. What's the approach with them? Are they doing virtual classes or are they allowed on campus?

Harris: Oh, no they're here. They’re masked and also testing weekly. Right now we have voluntary testing weekly for folks who are vaccinated, required for people who are not. We are discussing right now whether we want to make it required for more folks.