Helping Hand
Tufts replaces student loans with grants for low-income families

In a move designed to ensure access to a Tufts education for low-income students, and to promote economic diversity among the student body, the university has moved to replace student loans with grants for undergraduates from families with incomes of less than $40,000 a year.

Most of the students benefiting from the loan replacement program are the first generation in their families to be college-bound, says Lee Coffin, dean of undergraduate admissions. PHOTO: MELODY KO

The loan replacement policy applies to students in the Class of 2011 and subsequent classes. Approximately 7 percent of the Class of ’11—about 100 students—has benefited.

“Tufts has a broad commitment to socioeconomic diversity,” says Lee Coffin, dean of undergraduate admissions. “If you go all the way back to 1852 and read the original mission, it talked about Tufts being a place that had broad diversity in its student body: the farmer and the fisherman, the minister and the lawyer, all would have kids at Tufts. That’s the enduring mission.”

Although the loan-replacement program started with the first-year students who arrived last September, the university did not make a formal announcement until the end of the semester. “We wanted to see both what impact it would have, as well as whether it was sustainable,” says Coffin. “The outcomes have been exciting in the terms of the economic diversity that we’re creating, and we’re pleased to see we have the funding to make it sustainable.”

The administration chose the $40,000 threshold because most students at that income level or below also qualify for federal Pell Grants, a common yardstick to measure economic diversity and access. “Most of these students are also the first generation [in their families] to be college-bound,” Coffin says. “There are a lot of compelling reasons to target this group.”

Providing need-based financial aid is a top priority of the current $1.2 billion Beyond Boundaries capital campaign. According to Coffin, the university currently has raised $65 million of the $200 million goal to institute a permanent “need-blind” undergraduate admissions policy.

“Every year, we’re ‘need-blind’ in terms of the way we read applications,” Coffin says. “Under the current need-sensitive policy, at some point in the process, we have the option of saying, ‘can we afford this?’ There are years when the selection process is in sync with the budget—and that was true last year—and there are years when the selection process is out of sync with the budget. If we’re need-sensitive, we can then go back and re-shape the class to fit the budget. The degree to which we do it differs every year.

“Last year, for the first time, the budgetary constraints were gone, which was refreshing, and we anticipate that to be true this year as well,” he said.

Recently, some schools, including Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, have announced loan-replacement policies that include students from middle- and upper-income families. “That’s really rearranging the financial-aid calculus,” Coffin says. Tufts, he says, has “no plans to follow that model.”

The university holds firmly to the philosophy that “need-based financial aid creates and expands access for students who couldn’t go to college otherwise,” Coffin says. “That’s a fundamental principle and the historical reason why colleges offer need-based financial aid.”

At many universities, financial aid “is seen as a resource for access, and also as a strategic resource in the competitive environment of admissions,” Coffin adds. “At Tufts, financial aid is a mechanism to transform students’ lives when they don’t have the resources in their families to enroll at Tufts.”

Helene Ragovin is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at This story ran in the February 2008 issue of the Tufts Journal.