Graduates of first 'no loan' class look to future

With Princeton soon to enter their rear-view mirrors, members of this year's senior class are looking forward to pursuing their passions after graduation without having to worry about paying off huge student loans.

This class of 2005 was the first to enter the University under the groundbreaking "no loan" financial aid program in 2001. About 51 percent of seniors, or 600 students, have received aid at some point during their four years at Princeton. Graduating seniors are now able to enter the workforce, pursue further studies, seek teaching positions or take nonprofit jobs, among other endeavors, without the stress of major loan obligations on the horizon.

In a recent e-mail survey conducted by the Office of Financial Aid of seniors on financial aid, roughly two-thirds of the 100 respondents said the benefits of graduating with little or no debt have had a significant impact on their postgraduate plans. Seniors indicated plans to find full-time employment, continue their education at graduate or professional schools and pursue nonprofit work and service opportunities through organizations such as Teach for America, Princeton in Africa and Princeton Project 55.

"In the fall, I plan to student teach at a local high school through the Program in Teacher Preparation as I work toward certification," wrote one student. "Since I have no debt, I feel as though I have time to make wise decisions about my future after Princeton and to pursue my true interests. I probably would not have chosen to become an educator if I was burdened with loans."

"I've accepted a Princeton in Latin America fellowship and will be working for a nonprofit organization in Puerto Rico," another respondent said. "The pay is minimal, and had I not received the financial grants from Princeton over the years, I would have had to search for a better paying job here in the U.S."

"I perhaps would be more inclined to begin a well-paying job immediately after college if I had to pay back loans," one senior wrote. "Currently, I am planning on taking my time to embark on some new experiences and explore different opportunities before I settle on a career-building job."

The University's decision to replace undergraduate loans with grants -- the centerpiece of numerous financial aid improvements in recent years -- has significantly enhanced the economic diversity of the student body and has helped draw a larger pool of prospective students from around the globe. Applications for Princeton's class of 2009 rose by nearly 21 percent, due in part to growing awareness of the benefits of the University's financial aid program.

Since the "no loan" policy was established, the percentage of students on financial aid has risen to a record 52 percent for the current freshman class, compared to 38 percent in the last freshman class prior to the changes. That figure is expected to rise to 54 percent of next year's freshman class.

Those enrolling in next year's class include 198 low-income students (defined as having a family income less than the median family income of $50,900), up from 161 in the current freshman class and up from 88 in the last freshman class before the "no loan" program was instituted.

In 2001, Princeton eliminated loans for all students who qualify for aid, expanding a program instituted three years earlier in which loans were replaced with grants for low-income students. The unprecedented move followed a series of enhancements to Princeton's aid program beginning in 1998, which included: admitting international students on a "need-blind" basis along with U.S. students; removing the value of the family home from the formula that calculates how much parents are expected to contribute to college; reducing the contribution rate on student savings; and decreasing summer savings expectations for lower- and middle-income students.

While students still may wind up taking out some loans -- to pay for computer purchases, eating club dues or other living expenses, for example -- the Office of Financial Aid estimates that Princeton seniors on aid will graduate with average indebtedness of $2,360. That compares to the national average of about $20,000 for graduating seniors who have borrowed, according to the office.

In the wake of Princeton's efforts to reduce the economic burden on students and their families, other institutions around the nation have implemented a variety of programs to enhance their own financial aid offerings in recent years.

One senior, who plans to attend graduate school, said of Princeton's financial aid program, "Not only has it made my undergraduate career that much less anxiety-ridden regarding finances, but it has also allowed me to take the money I earned through school time work and pursue valuable internships and travel experiences abroad during the summer. For my postgraduation plans, I am much more enthusiastic about applying to a wide range of colleges -- public and private -- even if I would have to take on a loan afterwards."

For many students preparing to graduate from Princeton, the financial aid program has not only provided opportunities for their future but also has fostered a commitment to help provide similar advantages for future Princeton students.

"Without financial aid I would not have been able to attend this school," said one senior. "I hope that I am able to contribute as much as possible to afford the same opportunity to other students."

Another senior wrote, "I think the only way Princeton can live up to its commitments to diversity and academic excellence is through the wonderful financial aid packages, and I am certainly grateful for my experience here."