Financial aid and how it impacts UF students

When the University of Florida announces its admissions decisions on February 8, some students will get good news, but many will not. We received 42,000 applications for only 6,500 available positions.

Even those who are elated at being admitted, however, may wonder how they and their families will pay the costs of attending college.

I myself faced that challenge. When I was an undergraduate, my parents weren’t able to contribute to my college expenses, so I washed dishes in the dining hall during the academic year and worked as a construction laborer in South Miami in the summers. I also took out today’s equivalent of $40,000 in student loans. Many current UF students work and take out student loans, as did thousands of alumni.

For me, learning to manage money, time, work and my studies was an important part of college. Also, in my experience, loans can be beneficial when they help students graduate and begin their professional careers in a timely manner.

However, even though UF’s tuition is among the very lowest in the nation, for some students the cost of going to college is simply too high.

Helping these students is a priority for UF. We currently invest nearly $16 million in financial aid for undergraduates each year, and we are committed to doing even more.

In 2006 we launched the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars program. The program provides funding for successful applicants who are Florida residents, the first generation in their families to attend college and whose families earn $40,000 or less each year. We’ve awarded Machen scholarships to about 300 new students each year.

In fall 2016 we began offering micro grants to assist students in unexpected financial crisis. We’ve since given grants to about 150 students.

The UF Welcome Grant, launched this past fall, directs funds for one-time startup expenses to first-generation low-income students and has benefited about 120 freshmen.

Grad-A-Gator, being launched this spring, is designed to help some students who are experiencing special financial strain to increase their credit load to 15 hours –  with the goal of speeding them to graduation and reducing their costs.

While UF’s investment in financial aid is substantial, and while our tuition is among the lowest in the nation, I believe UF, the state and nation all need to increase our aid.

For our part, we’re focused on growing our endowment for financial aid for students in need. Our goal for the Go Greater campaign is to add $100 million to the financial aid endowment. I thank all our alumni and friends who are helping us get there.

At the state level, I am grateful that our lawmakers have more than doubled Florida Student Assistance Grant funding for students with financial need in the past two years, increasing UF’s annual allocation to more than $14 million. This is an important investment by the state in our students.

Florida’s signature financial aid program is the Bright Futures Scholarship, which generously rewards high-performing students who attend Florida public universities.  Ninety-three percent of UF’s in-state freshmen received a Bright Futures scholarship last academic year.

I thank our lawmakers for creating this program and for expanding their investment in Bright Futures in recent years, including by allowing students to use the scholarship to attend summer school.

Bright Futures awards are based on academic merit, which I support. However, I would like to see the amount of the awards be based on the financial needs of students and families. A student with financial need would get more than a student with no financial need. Bright Futures should be merit-based and need-aware.

On the federal level, the Pell Grant also recently began providing financial aid for some summer classes. This is a great development and I hope our federal lawmakers will continue to expand the Pell program.

In a few weeks, the next class of Gators will celebrate as they learn of their admission to UF. They should also know that with the assistance of financial aid, this is a university where they can afford to go to college.