Guaranteed: A Full Campus Experience for Students with Financial Need

In any week at Northwestern University a visitor can expect to find a number of theatrical productions, a student-led dance organization, and at least a couple a cappella groups all performing on stages somewhere on campus. There are also groups of students engaging with non-profits in a myriad of off-campus settings and communities. Student leaders are planning alternative spring break trips and projects for their peers; fraternities and sororities are selling prepared foods to raise funds for various kinds of programming; and students participating in over 30 sports clubs are practicing on campus or at local facilities. 

According to a recent survey, more than 90% of the 8,000 undergraduates at Northwestern participate in at least of more than 300 registered student organizations: fraternity or sorority chapters, competitive sports clubs, residence-based leadership programs, or some other student-centered program. But while student activity fees, departmental budget allocations, and institutional grants mitigate the need for most out-of-pocket costs, barriers to participation remain for students who have a high a financial need. Whether it’s the dues to join a competitive sports club, the cost of apparel for a dance performance, travel expenses to meet with a local community engagement partner, or registration fees for an academic conference, these personal costs and others can still create a financial barrier that adds stress and limits participation for some students. 

In recognizing and responding to evidence on this issue, Northwestern’s Associated Student Government in 2012 began prioritizing requests to university leadership for a grant allocation to offset personal costs for eligible students in order to enhance involvement opportunities. University administrators quickly agreed to carve out a budget for this effort and tasked the Division of Student Affairs with program implementation, supported through collaborative efforts from the divisions of Financial Aid, Information Technology, and Alumni Relations & Development. 

While initially underutilized during the first few years, by 2015 some 300 students had applied for and received financial assistance through the program. It continued to grow, doubling to support over 600 students in both the 2017 and 2018 funding cycles. A majority of registered student organizations are fully funded through institutional grants or student activity fee allocations, but the issue of additional costs that require some students to seek additional assistance
has remained. 

Student Organizations & Activities markets information about the assistance fund during the annual Fall Student Organization Fair, during new student resource fairs and prospective student family panel events, and through messaging campaigns aimed at student organization officers who are then asked to relay deadlines and other information about the fund to their organization’s members. The application form is also posted at the Opportunities webpage for Northwestern’s Student Enrichment Services for easy access and submission. 

How It Works 

Student Enrichment Services, which is in the Division of Student Affairs and directly supports first generation and low-income student populations, initially introduced an online portal branded as OneForm, supported by the online scholarship management platform AcademicWorks. The concept was that Northwestern students with financial need could find all of the opportunities available to them at this one-stop shop while they were also filling out a general application regarding their financial status. The requirement that a student would need to fill out the general application with every single request for assistance was abandoned. Just as important, the software auto-filled information imported from Financial Aid, thanks to the resourcefulness and efforts of Information Technology, so a reviewer could see the level of the submitter’s financial need, according to the student’s financial profile. 

Financial Aid assigns a score of 1-5 for all undergraduates to determine their level of need. Students whose financial need index is 5 have most of their tuition and fees covered by their financial aid package, while a student with an index of 1 identifies that student as having no need based on their financial profile. In the case of a student ranked with an index of 1 it is likely their expected family contribution is calculated to be well over the full cost of attendance. This 1-5 scale has proved invaluable for managing the fund in maximizing every dollar while also addressing financial need for the student body. 

A student submits their request for support from the student activities assistance fund through OneForm, and that online portal asks supplemental questions about the activity and student organization, as well as a prompt to submit a brief activity budget. A member of Student Organizations & Activities within Student Affairs then reviews the submission, mostly focusing on the personal budget and the financial need index. Based on those two variables and assuming nothing else in the submission is an outlier, the reviewer assigns an award amount that can range from between $30 and $600. Students whose financial need index is 5 typically see the award match their budget up to $600 per academic year. If the financial need index is 4, an award of 75%, or $450, is most common. For a 3, it’s 50% and for a 2, it’s 25%. No awards are given to students whose financial need score is 1 unless there are some drastic and sudden changes they share elsewhere in the submission. Data from all submissions is stored in an internal spreadsheet shared between the form reviewers. 

When the reviewer assigns an award amount and saves it to the student’s submission, they receive an automatic email with the award amount and instructions on how to receive their award. The student assistance fund program functions as a reimbursement, so students submit receipts or other acceptable payment documentation to show that they followed through on the activity for which they needed the financial support. Once a reviewer sees the receipts, they update the internal spreadsheet to indicate a student ought to receive a refund to their student account. Another form reviewer checks the spreadsheet weekly and issues the refunds to any students awaiting the transfer from the fund into their personal account. Students can also set up direct deposit accounts with their student account and withdraw the deposited award, and in some cases, the time between the student’s initial OneForm submission to the award posting to their account can happen within the same week if they have receipts or payment documentation ready. 

To address students who may not have the “up front” funds needed to then seek reimbursement, Financial Aid offers a short-term no-interest loan to students in the amount of $500, provided it is paid back by the end of the current term. Some students request the $500 loan, pay their activity expense, present their receipt to receive their award deposited into their account, and then use that deposit to pay back the loan. The method adds a few steps to the process, but it also provides opportunities to many students that would not otherwise be able to fund their additional expenses. It also ensures financial compliance for the assistance fund. 

Increasing Opportunities 

The ability to apply data from financial aid to support the students with the highest need in this sphere of the Northwestern experience has now made fraternity and sorority life more accessible. The percentage of affiliated students hovers between 35-45% with four governing councils overseeing 40 chapters. The student activities assistance fund supports students with initiation fees and general dues, in conjunction with council and chapter scholarships and other assistance, making fraternal life more affordable than ever before. One exception is that room and board fees related to their affiliation are not eligible for support. 

One management goal for the fund has been to see that 100% of the budget is used by the end of each academic year. Student Affairs has adopted a plan to set aside a specific amount for each term so that certain organizations that see the majority of their member expenses in March or April aren’t at a disadvantage if the demand outmatches the budget. If there is a remainder left in the budget for that term, the reviewers carry it over and add to the budget of the following term. For the past two years the program’s fund balance was close to $0 at the end of the spring term. 

The submission process also asks students to be more conscious of the expenses they bear related to their involvement, both for the sake of their personal finances and for Student Affairs to be aware of the financial consequences of some organizations passing costs on to their members. While all sports clubs are allocated funding from a department within intramurals and fitness and conduct their own fundraising efforts to keep personal expenses down, they also assess player dues to close budget gaps so the assistance fund can help ensure more students participate by lessening the financial barrier. For example, men’s ice hockey, figure skating, sailing, and crew all ask individuals to pay at least $600 per year to assist with facility rental fees, coaching fees, competition entry fees, and team equipment. These teams rely on a minimum number of participants in order to compete, and the assistance is one way participation is expanded, offering more students opportunities and ensuring the teams stay viable. Other teams have player dues that are closer to $50-150 for the year, so the fund can still support any of those students who might not otherwise feel comfortable participating on those teams due to the added cost. 

One of the newer organizations on campus teaches students various Latin dance styles with workshops and bonding events throughout the year, culminating in a spring mainstage performance for those who wish to be involved. Last year, the leadership of the organization promoted the fund to its members and a total of 18 students applied. Thirteen of them had a financial need index of 5, meaning a high level of financial need according to Northwestern’s Financial Aid office. The performance required individual costumes, and no student government allocations were available for such a new group. As a result, the fund supported individual costs of $1,800. Students were able to apply in advance of making purchases, learn of their award eligibility and amount, purchase what they needed for the show, and receive a reimbursement quickly. Among some of the more popular and established dance organizations at Northwestern, the group seems to be one of the more sought after opportunities for talented, burgeoning dancers on campus. 

Northwestern’s club crew team practices multiple times each week on rowing machines as well as on the North Shore Channel in nearby Skokie, Illinois. The team can be an expensive endeavor, with uniforms, maintenance of racing skulls and oars, coaching fees, storage for equipment, and travel to and from the boathouse, becoming significant. The fund supported nine members of crew with the maximum $600 reimbursement. In response to a submission question that prompts students to share what this activity means to their Northwestern experience, crew members stand out in sharing that the activity brings much needed routine to the daily life of a college student: getting up early for practice days is not only healthy for them physically, but the community of the team is often their favorite part about being a Wildcat. Some students share narratives that prior to joining the team, they struggled to find a sense of belonging or their own social network on campus, but crew provided them a peer network of support, both at practice and outside of the designated club time. 

Donor Support Takes Over 

In addition to course work, many undergraduates also keep part-time jobs either on or off campus as a means of earning money, but investing in some student organizations can place even greater stress on already strained budgets. With the growth of the activities assistance fund and increased participation from a group with the greatest financial need, word spread within the Northwestern community about its success. 

When alumni relations and development representatives learned about the impact of the awards, the volume of requests, and the efficient system that was in place to support students based on their financial need, they began connecting with prospective donors about supporting the program. Through data collected in the OneForm submissions, the representatives were able to share how many students received awards, a breakdown of activity categories that were positively impacted, the range of award amounts, and other information from participants that could be shared with donors. 

As of 2019, the majority of student activities assistance funding comes from private donors because they can be sure their gifts are being used to the fullest extent, as much of the fund is going directly to the students who rely on it, and that it is also supporting students with financial need. Thanks to the review and reimbursement system in place, donors are assured all of their gift is going directly to individual students. Northwestern still sets aside some budget to provide backbone support to the program, but it’s likely the future of the program will rely on the generosity of donors. The alumni relations and development team have now established a specific endowment for the fund to further secure it as a mainstay for the undergraduate experience. 

The student activities assistance fund is completely independent of financial aid award packages and any cost-of-attendance calculations, which may bode well for other like efforts to make student involvement on university campuses more equitable. With over $160,000 in awards distributed to nearly 700 qualified students, the fund has been shown to further student involvement without putting that cost squarely on operations budgets, and by automatically applying financial need data to the submissions, the system brings a level of standardization that maximizes the impact of the awards.  


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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