SCHENECTADY – Union College is receiving a significant boost to its ability to enroll low-income students.
The 226-year-old liberal arts school teamed with the Schuler Education Foundation to invest up to $40 million to enroll more low-income students, the college announced Tuesday.
Union College is among the first five schools selected to participate in the Schuler Access Initiative, which aims to enroll more underserved students at the nation’s top liberal arts colleges.
Jack Schuler, co-founder of the Schuler Education Foundation, will spend $500 million over the next 10 years as part of the initiative. He wants to include up to 20 liberal arts schools that will match the funds, for a potential investment of $1 billion.
Union College plans to raise $20 million over the next five years, which, with Schuler’s match, will provide the college with $40 million in scholarship grant funding to recruit and enroll underserved students.
According to college President David Harris, Union College’s incoming class of about 570 students includes about 75 who receive federal need-based Pell Grants that are awarded to low-income undergraduate students. Most Pell Grants are awarded to students with a total family annual income below $20,000.
The partnership with the Schuler Education Foundation will allow the school to add about 10 Pell Grant students every year in perpetuity because the money goes into an endowment, Harris said.
“I’m very excited about it,” he said.
Beginning in the 2022-23 school year, the Schuler grants will allow the college to add nine students who are eligible for Pell Grants in each of the first two years of the 10-year project. The number of additional students will increase to 10 in subsequent years.
Asked why it’s important for Union to enroll low-income students, Harris said: “I’m biased. I think Union is just a phenomenal institution. I think the options we provide in this smaller, more intimate setting with faculty who are teacher scholars and heavily engaged with students — it’s just incredible what we enable students to do. And I just can’t countenance the thought that this would just be for kids who were lucky enough to be born wealthy.
“And so this needs to be for kids who’ve done everything they need to do to be able to thrive in a place like Union, and this partnership with Schuler gets us closer to that, where we can just bring in the kids who were really going to be best prepared for this, instead of having to say, at some point, ‘You’re amazing but I’m sorry we have no more money so we can’t accept you.'”
Harris, who grew up in Philadelphia, was a low-income, first-generation college student. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at Northwestern University in Illinois.
“I recently unearthed some documents that showed that my parents’ annual income was comparable to the cost of Northwestern; it was about $16,000 a year,” Harris said.
“My parents had no savings, and there was no way I was going to college, certainly not that college, without a ton of financial help and the Pell Grant was part of that.”
The other schools chosen to date for the partnership with the foundation are Bates College, Carleton College, Kenyon College and Tufts University.
“A liberal arts education is unique to the United States and has proven to be a great foundation for success in post-graduate studies,” Schuler said. “You become a citizen of the world with a liberal arts education. You become a better doctor or lawyer or engineer with the fundamentals of a liberal arts education.”
Harris said the partnership with Schuler underscores how families should put less focus on Union College’s $76,000 a year cost to attend.
“This shows, yet again, that it’s really important to think about what it’s costing people actually and not just the sticker price… that if you’re someone who is just lower income and getting Pell Grant, and benefitting from this Schuler initiative. Coming to Union it’s probably going to be less expensive than going to a public institution, even though the sticker price is a lot higher.”
The goals of the Schuler initiative align with a priority of the college’s strategic plan to ensure that students of all economic backgrounds can access and take full advantage of the opportunities Union provides.