The historic $1.8 billion gift from Michael R. Bloomberg to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, will let the school remove loans from financial aid packages, boosting its allure for potential students from low-income families worried about debt.
But university officials say it is also destined to provide relief for middle-income students whose families are expected to pay at least some of the bills.
That is a core pocketbook issue for many parents and students throughout the country who are drawn to prestigious schools like Hopkins but are fearful of the bill. This year, the private research university in Baltimore is charging just over $70,000 for tuition, fees, and room and board before accounting for financial aid. That’s comparable to the price of many other elite schools.
Exactly how the Bloomberg gift will help families in various income ranges was not clear Monday. School officials said they were working on updates to their aid formulas. “We know we’ll reduce the net price for most families” who qualify for aid, said a senior Hopkins official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe details still in the works.
This official said eliminating loans from aid packages means a student who once would have been asked to borrow up to $19,000 over four years will get that funding instead as a grant to cover education expenses.
With its new policy, Hopkins joins fewer than two dozen prestigious schools able to boast they do not include loans in aid packages for students in need.
Federal data show that about 3,100 Hopkins undergraduates — a little more than half the total — received grants or scholarships in the 2016-2017 school year. The average grants that year were about $36,000.
Most who received aid were in the middle-income range and did not have enough need to qualify for federal Pell Grants, which target families with significant financial need. The undergraduate Pell share at Hopkins that year was 12 percent — which the school wants to raise to 20 percent.
Skeptics of the Bloomberg gift said the vast majority of students in financial need do not attend schools that look anything like Hopkins. The university turns away 90 percent of its undergraduate applicants.
“You know, a billion dollars could do such good in Baltimore itself,” said Jeffrey Senese, who was once on the faculty of the public University of Baltimore and is now president of private Saint Leo University in Florida. “That money could do so much good to so many kids. Spread it a little bit beyond this highly elite institution.”
Saint Leo enrolls about 14,000 students. More than 40 percent of its 9,000 undergraduates qualify for Pell Grants. Its annual operating budget is $160 million, less than one-tenth the size of Bloomberg’s gift. “I would take another $100 million,” Senese joked. “I would take another $25 million.”
A Bloomberg spokeswoman said Monday the former New York mayor declined to comment further on his gift. On Sunday, Bloomberg wrote in an opinion column for the New York Times that philanthropy alone is not enough.
“Private donations cannot and should not make up for the lack of government support,” he wrote. “Together, the federal and state governments should make a new commitment to improving access to college and reducing the often prohibitive burdens debt places on so many students and families.”
U.S. News & World Report recently listed 18 selective colleges and universities from the Ivy League and elsewhere that do not include loans in financial aid packages. Among them is the University of Chicago, which launched the policy in 2015.
For many students whose parents didn’t go to college, “the concept of loans might be scary or off-putting,” said James G. Nondorf, U-Chicago’s dean of admissions and financial aid. Minimizing debt, he said, opens up post-graduation opportunities for students who would otherwise worry about paying back loans.
“It enables those students to choose any career they might want,” Nondorf said.
The University of Pennsylvania dropped loans from aid packages several years ago, said MaryFrances McCourt, the school’s vice president of finance. Its endowment for undergraduate financial aid is about $1 billion, McCourt said, less than the Bloomberg gift. The endowment provides roughly $50 million a year for aid, she said, less than a quarter of the aid budget, with the rest coming from tuition revenue and other sources.
At Penn, McCourt said, families with typical assets and income of $65,500 a year or less are not expected to pay anything for tuition, fees, room or board. But the school will also cover tuition for qualified families with typical assets and income of up to $130,000, McCourt said. In addition, Penn is moving to help low-income students with expenses such as laptops, travel and summer internships.
Those efforts resemble initiatives that Hopkins envisions with the Bloomberg gift.
Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels said Sunday the university wants “to recruit more first-generation and low-income students and provide them with full access to every dimension of the Johns Hopkins experience.”
But there are limits to what Hopkins will be able to do. The “need-blind” admissions policy the university has embraced — ignoring the financial circumstances of applicants when choosing a class — will apply only to those from the United States. Hopkins will remain “need-aware” for international applicants, an official said.