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Private colleges ‘act local’ with financial aid

Associated Press | 9/1/2010, 3:51 a.m.

Hoping to portray themselves as more affordable and all-around better neighbors, private colleges from Appalachia to Boston are sweetening financial aid packages for students from their own backyards.

The latest and most prestigious example is Northwestern University. By targeting local students in financial need, Northwestern is seeking to boost minority enrollment, strengthen local ties and stay competitive in the college admissions race at a time when many private schools are increasing aid based on student merit instead of financial circumstances.

“You may be thinking globally about your education curriculum,” David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said of such efforts. “But you’re increasingly acting locally with respect to students.”

Northwestern’s “Good Neighbor, Great University” scholarships will be awarded starting in fall 2011 to about 100 incoming freshman who graduated from high schools in Evanston, Ill., home to Northwestern’s main campus, and Chicago, site of its medical school. About 2,000 first-year students enroll at Northwestern annually.

Students whose families show financial need -- there is no income cut-off -- will be eligible for scholarships replacing loans and payments from work-study. The majority of students who qualify will receive enough aid to fully cover the cost of Northwestern's $40,223 annual tuition and fees, said Michael Mills, associate provost for university enrollment.

The program was recommended by a university task force on diversity and inclusion, which was formed following racial tensions on campus, including a controversy last fall over two students who dressed up in blackface for Halloween.

After its black student enrollment peaked at nearly 10 percent during the Carter administration, Northwestern experienced a slow and steady decline, Mills said.

This year’s incoming freshman class is about 7.2 percent black, up from 4.5 percent three years ago, which Mills attributed in part to better outreach to Chicago Public Schools and waiving the $65 application fee for its students. The university expects to enroll 60 CPS graduates in this fall’s freshman class, up from 28 in fall 2008.

Turning again to Chicago for the new scholarship program seemed a logical step considering the city’s racial diversity and the strong Chicago connections of faculty and board members, he said.

Joshua Williams, 22, a 2010 Northwestern graduate who graduated from high school on Chicago’s South Side, sought Northwestern out rather than being courted. A debater and poet who was raised by his grandmother, Williams settled on Northwestern as a high-school sophomore, attended a summer debate camp there and won financial aid to cover tuition.

“Now we see a Northwestern that has a new face, that is more proactive, reaching out to public schools,” said Williams, who is African American and served on the diversity task force.

In developing the new scholarship program, Mills said Northwestern also was searching for answers after watching too many accepted students take merit-based scholarships at comparable and lesser schools.

“You’ve got all the evidence in the world to show kids you’ve recruited are smart enough to get admitted and predisposed to attend Northwestern, then you watch them sort of get plucked away,” he said.