The following column was published in the June 29 edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It was written by Berry President Stephen R. Briggs in response to an earlier front-page story detailing reductions in financial aid and scholarships at some Georgia institutions due to endowment losses.

College aid sparse for needy students

Recent news stories have profiled how some colleges and universities are reducing financial aid grants and scholarships because of significant declines in their investment portfolios.

Endowments and the income they produce are certainly an important factor in the availability of institutional financial aid for students. But that's not the end of the story. How budgets are reallocated during an economic downturn is ultimately a matter of institutional values and priorities. Priorities vary from school to school, but for those that emphasize the value of a high-quality undergraduate educational experience, preserving and enhancing financial aid assistance must be a top priority, especially in difficult times.

One of the problems confronting Georgia today is the absence of a meaningful program for providing need-based financial aid assistance. Georgia is a curious case. On one hand, lottery revenues are used to fund one of the nation's most generous merit-based scholarship programs.

But Georgia is among the least generous in the nation in terms of need-based financial aid. The long-term health and prosperity of the state would surely benefit if our tax and lottery dollars were more clearly directed toward helping a wide range of students graduate college.

It is also a curious fact that Georgia's independent colleges now provide much of the need-based financial aid assistance for the state's students. These colleges have no more dollars to work with per student than the major public institutions (which receive substantial allocations from the state budget on a per student basis), yet these private colleges offer generous need-based financial aid packages while also providing ideal learning environments with small classes and attentive faculty. They are able to do so because they concentrate their efforts and resources on undergraduate students rather than expensive graduate faculty and exclusive research facilities.

It is surprising that the state doesn't do more to encourage undergraduate students toward its independent colleges because they provide an exceptional learning environment at a fraction of the cost to the state.

The state receives better than a 10-to-one return on investment whenever a student chooses one of its independent colleges. Instead of an allocation of $8,000 to $14,000 per student (depending on the public university), a student choosing an independent Georgia college receives a modest grant of $970 through the Tuition Equalization Grant program. It's quite a deal: the state saves a significant amount, and students attend the college of their choice because independent colleges use their resources to support undergraduate education and provide financial aid.

Colleges and universities have seen decreases in endowment portfolios and other revenues this last year. Even so, some have chosen to invest more in support of undergraduate education.

For example, at Berry College, we have significantly increased our institutional need-based grant aid to meet increased student financial need, both in terms of aggregate expenditures and expenditures per student. Berry also has increased its student work budget. We guarantee all students an on-campus job during their four years here because we believe that work experience complements and supplements a student's academic program. It provides an enriched educational experience in a time of economic uncertainty.

Yes, times are tough for colleges, public and private. But, equally, times are tough for students and their families. Now is precisely when colleges and universities should be providing new avenues for need-based aid and investing in new opportunities for the students who will shape the future of our economy.

— Steve Briggs is president of Berry College