Grinnell College Eliminates Student Loans in Response to COVID-19-Related Financial Strains - Higher Education


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Grinnell College Eliminates Student Loans in Response to COVID-19-Related Financial Strains

by Autumn A. Arnett

Grinnell College, a small liberal arts college nestled between Des Moines and Iowa City, Iowa, announced Wednesday that it has revolutionized its financial aid system to completely eliminate loans from students’ financial aid packages.

Students at Grinnell College

Since the early 1980s, the college has had a need-blind admissions policy, which is when an applicant’s ability to pay for their education will not be a factor in the admission decision. But when COVID-19 ravaged the country — and the world — officials said they realized they needed to ensure students and families would be taken care of. They convened focus groups and found student loans were still a main source of stress for students, even up to 10 years after they graduated.

The college’s leaders discerned that they had spent over $10 million in the spring to get students through the pandemic shutdown.

“No one really knows how long this pandemic is going to last,” said Dr. Anne Harris, president of Grinnell College, who is concerned about the pandemic and its ongoing economic impact. She said she is especially worried about how the pandemic might affect current and future students’ access to higher education.

“We are seeing first-generation students and students of color are having reduced access to higher ed, especially small liberal arts colleges,” she added.

Dr. Anne Harris (Photo: Grinnell College)

According to Grinnell’s website, 15% of Grinnell students are first-generation and 26% are domestic students of color.

“One of our goals really was, ‘OK, roll your sleeves up.’ How do we maintain access to a Grinnell education for as many students as possible?” Harris said. “The pandemic has made me value [our campus] model that much more, and therefore value the access to that model that much more. We have to maintain the multiplicity of that model; we have to maintain the diverse model that our students bring. Everything we’ve seen out in the world was telling us access was going to get harder, and we wanted to preserve that access.”

Leaders in admissions and financial aid then developed a task force for student financial support and success. Together, they understood that if they consolidated all of the various efforts and funding pools they had created as emergency funds, they could create a more permanent funding model.

Nearly 80% of Grinnell’s roughly 1,600 students have campus jobs, and when the campus shut down in the spring, the administration decided to convert their work wages into grants to ensure students would still get paid.

“The thinking started over the summer — once we did have a chance to look back and see what we did in the spring to get our students and families through,” said Harris. “But what we saw was the stress level was still very high for everyone, especially as they started looking ahead to the future.”

In addition to eliminating inefficiencies in operations and consolidating what Harris calls “a bunch of incremental funds,” she said alumni “really stepped up” to help current students.

Harris also recognizes the college is in a fairly privileged position. In fact, Grinnell’s endowment is over $2 billion, and thanks to market conditions, “it’s producing very well right now,” Harris said. Officials have been able to move the surplus from the returns into the school’s operating budget without touching the principle of the endowment to further help students.

“We always hear [that] schools with strong endowments need to use their endowments, and this is really that. We’re not doing a special endowment fund,” Harris said. “We’re doing this out of our regular operating fund, so it’s really just a realignment” of resources that help to ensure student success.

Harris is most excited about the number of students who will benefit, which is over 1,000, or more than 60% of the total student population. She underscores “the ability to be responsive to students and families in this particular time.”

“We don’t know how long the pandemic will really last economically, and we can’t miss a beat in terms of society and education, so this just helps us to keep going in our mission,” Harris said.

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