“In fact, when we were first married ... our combined monthly student loan bills were actually higher than our mortgage,” Obama said. “Thank you, Princeton.”
Though she rarely mentions Princeton by name, the personal anecdote is a consistent part of her campaign message. But Princeton financial aid officers from when she was a student said that, though their policy has changed significantly since, the University’s financial aid offerings in the 1980s were relatively competitive.
Don Betterton, who led the Undergraduate Financial Aid Office for 32 years from 1974 to 2006, described the University’s financial aid program as “on the generous side” even before the no-loan financial aid policy was implemented in 2001.
During Obama’s senior year, tuition, room and board cost $15,408, according to University Spokesperson Martin Mbugua. However, 43 percent of students were on some type of financial aid and did not pay full fare; the average student on financial aid received an aid package of $9,176.
This package included the student loans that Obama frequently references, along with work-study awards and grants. As a result, the average student left the University with $8,450 in student debt, according to Mbugua.
Obama has not said how much debt she accrued from her Princeton years, and a majority of the debt accumulated by Obama may have been a result of her years at Harvard Law School. But during the time she attended Princeton, students on financial aid were required to first take out a loan to cover the cost of tuition not covered by the calculated expected family contribution.
Between 1980 and 1985, Princeton students on aid borrowed an average of $2,000 to $2,350 per year. Students were then offered a work-study package, though students who graduated from a New Jersey public high school — which Obama did not — were not required to participate in student employment.
Betterton said the University’s aid program demanded less student employment than peer institutions. Work-study was around eight hours each week, while it was 15 hours at other colleges.
Any remaining financial need was met with a scholarship. Students would first pay with any federal scholarships they qualified for — such as the Pell Grant — and Princeton would cover the difference.
Craig Robinson ’83, Obama’s brother, has credited Pell Grants for his and his sisters’ ability to pay for their education. At this year’s Democratic National Convention, Obama said that when she and Robinson went to college, “nearly all of [their] tuition came from student loans and grants.” Obama said that her father also paid for a portion of their education.
“If she took out the standard student loan back in that time, they were really modest with what the standard loan students are taking out today,” Betterton said.
Students serving on a faculty committee on University admissions worked to keep the required preliminary loans low. Some students opted to borrow outside loans to cover their expected family contributions. Parents also took out a home equity loan. However, the financial aid office does not have records of these loans.
Former undergraduate financial aid associate director Linda Ensor, who was Betterton’s deputy from 1984 to 1986, said that Princeton’s financial aid package was not necessarily unique among the Ivy League. The University worked with other schools to develop its financial aid package, she said.
Ensor explained that once students were admitted in the spring, Ivy League schools discussed students who were admitted to more than one school and tried to match each other’s financial aid offers. They attempted to keep the amount that a family would have to pay for tuition consistent from school to school.
The expected amount for student self-help — which is the combined amount from loans and work-study — would also vary by only a few hundred dollars. This was to ensure that students chose between the Ivy League schools based on whichever school was the best fit rather than the cost of the educations.
“The goal was to make it affordable and something that was applied evenly across the population,” Ensor said.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/12/31485/