PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In the 10 years since Brown University eliminated parent contributions toward tuition for undergraduates from families with incomes below $60,000, the number of these students at Brown has increased by more than 200 percent.
Yet some Brown students from low-income backgrounds face the same struggles as their counterparts at universities across the nation to cover the costs of fees, textbooks, travel and other educational expenses. Some even opt out of meals to devote funds to these other uses, sacrificing health and nutrition — a University of Wisconsin report this month found that 36 percent of four-year college students nationally face “food insecurity” at times.
To ensure that students with the highest financial need at Brown have sufficient funds for full meal plans and required course materials, the University will launch two new measures in 2018-19.
First, Brown will provide all undergraduates (incoming and returning students) who have a $0 parent contribution, as determined by the financial aid office, with additional scholarship funds to cover the full cost of tuition, fees, housing and meals. Separately, the University will run a one-year pilot program to cover textbook costs for first-year undergraduates who have a $0 parent contribution.
“We know that students from families with high financial need face particular challenges when they enter college in this country,” said Brown Provost Richard M. Locke. “These enhancements are part of an ongoing commitment to ensure that students admitted to Brown have equitable opportunities to take full advantage of their education and contribute in meaningful ways to our community.”
The expanded efforts to support high-need students emerged after Locke convened a working group to explore student concerns about access to textbooks and course materials by undergraduates from low-income families. Working group member Vernicia Elie, an assistant dean who supports undergraduates from low-income backgrounds with financial matters, said the group’s research revealed additional challenges, too.
For example, she noted that prior to these new measures, most students with high financial need were expected to use earnings from work-study and summer employment to contribute toward the cost of some educational expenses, such as meal plans. Elie said it can be difficult for some students to earn those funds, and other students may turn down lower-paying summer opportunities that might better serve their educational and career goals. With University scholarship now covering the full amount of these costs for students with the highest need, work-study or summer earnings expectations will be reduced for those who previously had these elements included in their financial aid packages.
To ensure that students do not sacrifice on food security by skipping meals and securing a refund to use toward other costs, the University will now require all first-year students to have a full meal plan that includes 20 meals per week. And for all high-need students (any undergraduate who has a $0 parent contribution), Brown will provide additional scholarship funds to meet the full costs of the full meal plan.
Separately, a pilot program will cover textbook costs for first-year students in 2018-19 who have a $0 parent contribution. Textbook costs vary but can cost as much as $1,300 per year, according to Brown’s financial aid office. The University will evaluate an electronic swipe card method for textbook purchases by these students during the pilot and, if successful, consider extending the program to all students with high financial need during its Fiscal Year 2020 budget planning process.
Elie said that further reducing financial barriers will allow students at Brown with the highest financial need to better access and benefit from the Open Curriculum.
“We’ve found that some students are selecting courses based on how much books cost,” she said. “Our goal is to ensure that no student feels compelled to make educational choices based on finances and that every Brown undergraduate can take full advantage of the opportunities that the Open Curriculum offers.”
Brown junior Auriana Woods coordinates student programs at the University’s First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center and was one of four students who initially approached senior leaders with a proposal for a new way to fund textbook purchases. This student-initiated outreach prompted the University to form the working group, which included senior administrators representing offices across Brown who support student academic and campus life. The working group consulted regularly with students like Woods.
Having an opportunity to share concerns with the provost, deans and other Brown administrators was an important opportunity to have an impact on decision-making with her direct knowledge of the issues that affect students from low-income families, Woods said.
“As low-income student organizers, we understand the gaps in student support, as we’ve encountered these needs firsthand,” she said. “The goal is to ensure that low-income students have, as much as possible, the same experience in their time at Brown as those of a higher income bracket. It’s a big task.”
In addition to launching the new initiatives, the University will establish a working group to further evaluate food insecurity at Brown and a standing committee to assess pressing needs of low-income students.
These new efforts at Brown complement an expanding array of programs and initiatives aimed at enrolling and supporting students from low-income families. For more than 15 years, the University’s undergraduate admission process has been need-blind, meaning inability to pay toward the cost of attendance is never a deterrent to admission. The University meets the full demonstrated financial need of all enrolled undergraduates and beginning next year will replace loans with scholarship funds in all University-packaged financial aid awards through The Brown Promise initiative.
Last year, Brown joined the American Talent Initiative, an alliance working to expand access for talented students from low-income families, began to automatically waive the application fee for low-income students, and opened one of the country’s first dedicated centers for first-generation and low-income students.
The University also offers funding to assist income-eligible students with health insurance, travel, food and housing during spring and winter recess, and emergency funding to cover urgent, unanticipated non-academic needs such as health and medical care costs and copays, travel costs related to medical emergencies or death in their immediate family, and winter clothing.