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Financial Aid and Cost

While many expressed gratitude for the University’s modification of its financial aid policy to reflect the average cost of club meal contracts in calculating the financial need of juniors and seniors, many also commented on the extent to which students continue to feel they can’t afford to join or remain in clubs because of costs. Some focused their comments on club fees, and made specific suggestions about ways clubs might reduce their costs, while others asked about options like less-than-full meal plans or reduced social fees for students who don’t drink. Others focused on the financial aid package, noting that some club meal charges exceed the average, and social fees and sophomore charges are not covered. Some pointed to the price sensitivity of students whose families feel financial strain even if they don’t qualify for aid, and some called for greater and earlier transparency by the clubs in making students aware of what they will be charged, in part so the students and their families can prepare to meet the charges, especially in the spring of sophomore year. Some asked whether the mechanics of the aid process could be changed, either to include the club rate in the financial aid calculation only for juniors and seniors who join clubs, or to have families on aid remit their club fees through the University so as not to have to write separate checks to the club and to the University. Some proposed that the University consider capital contributions to support dining and study areas in the clubs (or at least the sign-in clubs).

The task force was persuaded that there are students who choose not to join the clubs, or leave them, for financial reasons. By changing the aid calculation and making low-cost loans available, the University has made it possible for students to join the clubs if they wish to do so, and even if students need to borrow, they will still graduate with less debt than students at schools that have not removed required loans from their aid packages. At the same time, it is clear that students are reluctant to borrow for this purpose; that the charges for social fees and sophomore year present insurmountable financial challenges for some students and families; that applying the higher board rate to all juniors and seniors (not just club members) does create financial disincentives for club membership in the minds of some students; and that the mechanics of the aid process can also serve as a disincentive to join a club. As the University continues to seek out and attract students from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds, it is likely that there will be some students and families who will choose not to join the clubs for financial reasons, even with further improvements in financial aid, and we believe it is important for the University to continue to provide attractive social and dining options for those students, while also doing as much as it can to remove financial barriers to membership whenever possible.

As a task force we recognize that some students will elect not to join eating clubs for reasons that are not financial in nature, but we hope that the University and the clubs will do all they can to reduce the remaining financial impediments to club membership, partly to ensure true equity of opportunity for all students, and partly to contribute further to a reduction in socioeconomic stratification in the clubs. To these ends:

  • We call upon the University to consider whether further improvements can be made in the financial aid program to address the concerns that have been expressed about costs that are not covered (social fees and sophomore charges) and the mechanics of the aid distribution/bill-paying process.
  • We call upon the clubs to provide greater transparency about costs, especially in sophomore year, so students and families will know earlier what they will be charged and when. A number of clubs make their own resources available for financial aid and offer extended payment plans for students who need assistance, and we commend these efforts. In some clubs, students who seek financial aid from their club or wish to negotiate an extended payment plan must have these conversations with fellow students, which can be awkward to the point of making students reluctant to come forward. We encourage the clubs to make it possible for students to have these conversations with either a member of the graduate board or a member of the club’s professional staff.
  • We encourage both the clubs and the University to consider whether there are ways to increase the level of scholarship aid available through the clubs, especially if the University concludes that it cannot cover social fees and sophomore charges in its financial aid calculations. One of the purposes of the Princeton Prospect Foundation, a charitable organization encompassing all 10 clubs to which we will refer later in our report, is to establish and contribute to scholarships for members of the clubs and, more generally, to support educational initiatives at the clubs. We encourage the foundation to consider initiatives that might increase socioeconomic diversity in the clubs. We also encourage the University and the clubs to better publicize the availability of financial aid to help meet the costs of the clubs.
  • We believe there is merit in considering actions that may reduce the costs of operating the clubs, which in turn may reduce or slow the rate of increase in the prices they charge. Some of these are actions the clubs themselves may take, such as considering collective action regarding purchasing and waste removal. In recent years, the University has wired the clubs for Internet access, provided free wireless in the clubs, and taken responsibility for snow removal along Prospect Avenue. We encourage continuation of such initiatives and the exploration of other ways in which the University might help reduce club costs.
  • One specific suggestion is to encourage the clubs to call upon the University’s Office of Risk Management for assistance in obtaining insurance coverage at the lowest possible cost. This office has significant expertise and many years of experience in negotiating insurance contracts, and would be delighted to help the clubs either individually or collectively.
  • There may be merit in considering whether some modification in club meal plans could produce both savings (in staffing and purchasing) and potential benefits for students. One possibility would be for one or more clubs to eliminate breakfast, with the University accommodating the club’s members at breakfast in the residential colleges. Another possibility would be for one or more clubs to close for dinner one night per week with the understanding that its members all would use one of their two college meals that evening. If more than one or two clubs decided to explore this possibility, presumably a plan could be devised to prevent all club members from taking their meals in the colleges on a single night. We recognize that this is an idea that would need to be considered carefully, both to be sure that it would result in real savings, but also to be sure that it didn’t have the unintended consequence of reducing the attractiveness to students of the clubs that might elect it.