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Q&A with Pat McWade, Dean of Student Financial Services

Patricia McWade is dean of student financial services for the Main Campus, which means she is responsible for aid and financing programs for undergraduate students, students in the School for Continuing Studies, and graduate students in the College, McDonough School of Business and Walsh School of Foreign Service. For a number of years, expanding resources for financial aid, especially at the undergraduate level, has been a top university financial priority. The current economic crisis only adds to its importance.

McWade took some time from finalizing financial aid offers for newly admitted undergraduates to speak with Georgetown Alumni Online about financial aid at Georgetown.

What’s the simple story about financial aid at Georgetown?

Financial aid is what allows the university to recruit and retain the best students, ensures that all admitted students can afford to attend, and helps Georgetown enroll a socioeconomically diverse student body. It’s the foundation of affordability and access to a Georgetown education for students who otherwise for financial reasons could not be here.

Georgetown is one of only a few dozen private colleges and universities that have a “need-blind, full-need” policy. Can you explain what this policy means and why it is so important to Georgetown?

They are actually two separate but interconnected policies. “Need-blind” is an admissions policy that considers undergraduate applicants without regard for their ability to pay for a Georgetown education. “Full-need” is a financial aid policy. It fulfills the promise made by need-blind admissions by providing a financial aid package that meets 100 percent of each admitted student’s demonstrated need. Over the past 30 years, these policies have been the foundation supporting Georgetown’s ability to attract the most highly qualified and desirable students.

What makes up a financial aid package?

Our undergraduate cost of attendance will be roughly $55,000 next year. We expect each student and his or her parent or parents to contribute toward educational expenses based on their ability to pay. Undergraduates who are able to pay less than our full cost of attendance receive a financial aid “package” that includes first a federally subsidized student loan, then a federally subsidized part-time student job and, if needed, a Georgetown scholarship to meet the remainder of their need. Many colleges have to “gap” their financial aid package, which means they know a student has need but they cannot offer aid to meet that need. Here at Georgetown we pledge to meet 100 percent of each eligible student’s need, and our scholarship program fulfills that promise.

What percentage of undergraduate students applying for admission also apply for financial aid?

This year about 65 percent of admitted undergraduates indicated they were applying for financial aid, an increase of five percent compared to last year.

What percentage of students enrolled today receive financial aid?

About 55 percent of undergraduates are receiving some form of financial aid, and by that I mean aid from Georgetown, or aid from an outside sponsor, or funding through a student or parent loan program. About 41 percent of undergraduates are receiving a scholarship funded by Georgetown.

How is a family’s demonstrated need determined?

Students complete an application that gives us information about their family’s income, assets, expenses and liabilities. Using that information and a nationally recognized need analysis system, the financial aid officers on my staff evaluate each family’s ability to contribute toward educational expenses based on their reported circumstances. Each student’s “demonstrated need” is the difference between Georgetown’s cost of attendance and what his or her family is able to contribute.

Is there a standard distribution for how financial aid is given out? Does each student receive the same percentage of loans, scholarships and work-study?

There is no cookie-cutter formula. My staff carefully evaluates each application for financial aid individually. We encourage applicants to share any information they think is relevant to their financial situation, even if the application doesn’t ask them for it, and we use that information to craft a Georgetown aid package to meet their needs. It’s a very labor-intensive process, but we are committed to it because it responds to the actual needs of real students and their families, not some statistical model. And we feel it’s in line with the university’s Jesuit tradition and values.

You said that about 41 percent of undergraduate students receive scholarships funded by Georgetown. How does that translate to dollars?

In 2007-08 Georgetown funded about $57 million in need-based scholarships and an additional $6 million in athletics scholarships for a total of $63 million in undergraduate scholarships.

What is the source of the $63 million in scholarships?

Twenty-two percent is funded by gifts in the form of income from permanent endowed scholarship funds and current-use funds. Last year, that gift support came to $14 million. The 78 percent balance is funded from the annual operating budget. Georgetown’s dependence on the operating budget to support our undergraduate financial aid program is of continuing concern to me and many others at the university. Some of our peer institutions are able to fund as much as 80 percent of their financial aid program from endowments and gifts. I share President DeGioia’s concern that it’s precarious to rest such a large percentage of a crucial university priority like our financial aid program on annual operating dollars. We need to build a stronger financial foundation for our financial aid program. 

What’s the range of scholarship support that a student might receive? What’s the average scholarship award?

We offer scholarships to meet each eligible undergraduate’s demonstrated financial need.  Some of our undergraduates need only a little help, and some need a lot of help. Last year we awarded approximately 2,300 Georgetown scholarships, and they ranged in value from as little as $1,000 for the year to as much as the full cost of attendance for the year, which is more than $50,000. Last year the average award was $23,500.

How does Georgetown’s amount of scholarships vs. loans in a financial aid package compare to our peers?

Frankly, we’re not competitive. Our packages have more loans than we’d like to see, which means that the average undergraduate student graduates with about $17,500 in educational debt.

Are Georgetown’s peers offering more scholarships and fewer loans?

Yes. In the past few years, dozens of schools have announced new policies to reduce or eliminate loans for their students. The Georgetown Scholarship Program (GSP) - a scholarship program funded by current-use dollars - offers that same benefit to our students, but due to limited funds we can offer GSP packages with more grant and less loan to only 10 percent of our undergraduate aid population. 

Let me give you another example of what some of our peers are doing that we cannot afford at this time. In 2008, the average “self-help,” which is student loan plus job, for Georgetown students in their senior year was $9,100. At three peer universities that are most similar to Georgetown, with whom we have a strong overlap in admissions applications and who give need-based financial aid in the way we do, the senior-year self help amounts are $6,000, $5,450 and $2,450, respectively. It’s clear that we are operating at a disadvantage.

How do financial aid packages affect admissions yield?

It’s really very simple. We enroll more students when we offer more financial aid. I’ll quote our Dean of Admissions Charlie Deacon, who has said that we enroll 52 percent of admits who do not request financial aid, but we enroll only 39 percent of admits who request financial aid. However, since the inception of the GSP program we have enrolled 56 percent of admits who request financial aid and receive a GSP financial aid package with more grants and less loan.  

Do accepted applicants come to you with a more generous financial offer from another university and ask Georgetown to match it?

Frequently. But often those offers are not based solely on demonstrated need.

Does Georgetown match other university’s financial aid offers?

No. We do, however, invite families to discuss their options with us. If a student receives a merit-based scholarship award from another school and a need-based award from Georgetown, we help the family evaluate what would be the best choice for their child.  

Why doesn’t Georgetown offer merit-based scholarships?

It’s a choice Georgetown has made for two reasons. One, all the students Georgetown admits are exceptional and they all deserve to be here. Two, we think that using our limited scholarship resources to help the neediest students first is consistent with our Catholic and Jesuit tradition and helps build socioeconomic diversity on campus.

Sounds like it would be hard to go head to head with another university’s financial aid offer.

When students are looking at Georgetown and a competing offer, they need to consider Georgetown for its added value of providing an excellent academic and student life experience.

Need-based financial aid programs attempt to level the playing field. Aid programs like ours make it possible for applicants to choose a school because they love it and want to attend, without having to worry about the financial cost to their family. Financial considerations should not be the reason for selecting a college. But lately the playing field in American higher education has gotten really complicated. Some of the better-endowed universities that we compete with for students have announced new aid policies that promise much higher scholarship awards for families at a certain income level. We’re not there yet.

Has the current economic crisis had any impact so far on demands for financial aid? Did you have students not able to return to campus in January?

For the current academic year, we’ve been able to help several students who contacted us to report a change in their family’s financial situation. It’s still too soon to tell about next year. We prepared aid packages for new admits in March, we’ll award new transfer admits in May and we will prepare financial aid packages for continuing students in June.  Based on the media reports of the bleak current economic conditions, we are expecting more aid applications and more special appeals for assistance. My staff is prepared to be sensitive to these unique conditions as we seek to enroll a new class and retain our continuing students. Most importantly, we don’t know what the economy will look like this time next year or the year after. The effects of the economic crisis could be felt for a long time. We will be monitoring the situation carefully. The good news is that the university is more committed than ever to sustaining a financial aid program that meets 100 percent of need, whatever that need is.

What is the university doing to plan for the potential need for more financial aid?

Undergraduate tuition will increase by only 2.9 percent next year—the lowest increase in a generation—which will help our families tremendously. Also, Georgetown has planned a budget that assumes an 18 percent increase in undergraduate scholarship funding for next year.

Is there anything else you’d like alumni to know about undergraduate financial aid at Georgetown?

I believe that our financial aid program is a wonderful example of what makes Georgetown great—a commitment to creating a community of students with diverse experiences and points of view. When I travel to admissions receptions, I meet many students who deserve to be here, but couldn’t dream of attending Georgetown without financial aid. With sufficient financial aid, most of these students can participate fully in the Georgetown experience and they can thrive here. I’m proud to say that there are hundreds of undergraduates enrolled today, and thousands who have graduated from Georgetown over the past 30 years, who have benefited from our financial aid program. They have made unique and sometimes surprising contributions back to our community. That’s the beauty of financial aid.