Our guest on February 7, 2001, was Paul West, director of financial aid for Duke University's Fuqua School of Business (No. 5 on BusinessWeek's 2000 Top 30 B-school list). West began his career at Methodist College, where he held positions in the school's business, admissions, and financial-aid offices. He then spent 20 years as the assistant and then the associate director of financial aid at North Carolina State University. In 1990, he arrived at Duke's Fuqua School of Business, in Durham, N.C., where West has been active in state, regional, and national financial-aid associations, as well as on the Graduate Management Admission Council Student Loan Advisory Committee. He was interviewed by Lucia Quartararo for BusinessWeek Online. Here's an edited transcript of that discussion:
Q: Paul, prospective B-school students have lots of funding options. What programs does Fuqua have to help future MBAs finance their two years in Durham?
A: We have two types of aid: a merit-based scholarship program that's open to all students, and various student-loan programs.
Q: Let's focus on merit scholarships, which are attractive because they don't need to be paid back. How does a prospective MBA apply for merit-based aid?
A: When a student fills out an admissions application, there is a form provided that [applicants] should submit if they want to be considered for financial assistance.
Once a student is admitted, we have a separate committee of admissions staff, student-affairs staff members, and the financial-aid team that meets to determine the awards that are offered. The committee looks for academic achievement, community involvement, work experience, and leadership potential based on [the applicant's] advancement in his or her current job. It's also strongly encouraged that every student interview [on campus] if possible.
We [award scholarships] on a first-come, first-serve basis. The disadvantage of applying late is that if we use up all of our resources by the end of round three, then we may not be able to offer a scholarship to [prospective students] in the later rounds.
But we try to identify [deserving applicants] and notify them to that effect. In May, after [admits] have decided whether they're coming, we go back and reconsider those who applied in the later rounds. We recommend that if you want [to be considered for] scholarship assistance, you apply no later than the third round.
Q: How many students benefit from merit scholarships, and what is the range of these awards?
A: Each year, the committee decides how we break up awards. For instance, scholarships [can range from] 25% to 75% of tuition. It varies from year to year, but we try to have a variety. About one-third of each class receives merit-scholarship assistance. There are maybe 5 to 10 full-tuition scholarships offered in each class.
Q: Are international students eligible for merit-based awards as well?
A: Scholarship funds aren't limited to U.S. citizens. About 10% to 15% of the roughly 30% international-student constituency are offered scholarship assistance. Between our two classes, we have about 170 [international] students [out of a total of 335 full-time students].
Q: For the year 2000-01, tuition for full-time students was $28,910. What is the total estimated cost that you recommend a student to budget for their first year?
A: This year, the budget for an entering student is $42,395. That includes $11,520 for living expenses.
Q: So the best way to make up the difference between scholarship awards and the cost for the first year of study would be to take out a loan. Do you have a list of preferred lenders that students should contact for decent interest rates and fees?
A: We just signed an agreement with Sallie Mae and its MBA Loans program, which is a GMAC [Graduate Management Admissions Council]-sponsored program. They're signed up this year as our only lender.
The first things that a [U.S. student or permanent resident] should do is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the current year in order to apply for the federal Stafford Loan. It provides up to $18,500 per year. [Prospective] students would then be eligible to apply for the difference required in the budget through this MBA Tuition Loan Program (MBATLP), which is available to all students. The private loans do run credit checks on students and have varying fees that they charge based on the student's credit status. But the majority of the students who [enroll] have passed their credit checks and therefore [don't have any] fees attached to their loans. Loans through the Stafford loan program and the MBATLP both go through one servicing agent, so there aren't multiple repayment plans to deal with.
Q: How many Duke MBAs receive federal aid?
A: About 70% of all students enrolled have some form of assistance, and the majority of those are U.S. citizens with federal loans. Almost everybody who applies is able to get some portion of their monies from the federal program if they're a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident. If you don't include foreign students in the calculation, the percentage goes up to about 90%.
Q: Almost one-third of Fuqua's students are from outside of the U.S. What are some of the options non-U.S. applicants have in terms of financing an MBA?
A: Historically, international applicants have had very few options. We're very excited to be launching a new program called the Duke MBA Opportunity Loan which we hope will be ready by Apr. 1. [This program] will allow an international student to apply for up to $15,000 for each year, so foreign students will have [access to] a total of $30,000 over their two-year course of study. These loans do not require U.S. cosigners.
Q: Are graduate assistantships available to students who want to help meet costs by teaching or assisting a professor?
A: The majority of the teaching-assistant or research-assistant positions are for second-year students who have already completed their required core courses. But we do have numerous jobs for students that want to work. Both federal work-study [programs], and Fuqua offer jobs to students.
Q: Graduates of Fuqua's Class of 2000 came away $51,600 in the red. That's one of the highest debt amounts in BusinessWeek's Top 30. What accounts for this substantial figure?
A: Our merit-scholarship money is not increasing as our costs increase, so the difference is made up through additional loan amounts. One of the reasons our average loans are higher is because we have Global Travel Experience programs, which are regular courses that involve travel abroad. These programs take place during spring break or between semesters. Students travel for 10 to 12 days in a foreign country to visit businesses and so forth. [The costs run] between $2,500 to $3,500, depending on the trip. A lot of students add to their loan debt by participating.
The other thing that influences the loan debt is that we allow students to borrow money to purchase computers. If a student buys a computer and takes one of the global-travel programs [he or she can incur up to] $6,000 in extra expenses.
An increasing number [of students] are borrowing the maximum allowed during the first year of the program. A lot of students justify loan debt because of the increased earning power they gain by having the MBA degree.
Q: The average age of a Fuqua student is 28, so it's probably safe to assume that there are married students on campus. Does marital status effect a potential student's financial-aid eligibility?
A: Federal rules dictate that the basic student budget should only cover the student expenses, so we're not allowed to develop a married-student budget. It's assumed that the spouse will be employed in the local area and have income to subsidize the extent of the family, if there is a family. If there are child-care expenses, however, then we're able to make an adjustment to the student's budget. If the spouse is not employed, the student should inform us, and we'll make decisions on an individual basis.
Q: What Fuqua programs or networks help spouses of MBAs find a job in the Durham area?
A: Once [an applicant] is admitted and committed to attending, our career-services office will assist a spouse in locating a job. There are lots of jobs that are available at Duke. Also, many spouses come in with high-tech skills, and we have a lot of high-tech businesses in the area.
Q: When should a prospective MBA start thinking about financing?
A: As soon as [prospective] students know their tax information for year 2000, they need to fill out [the FAFSA] and get it in process because it takes roughly four weeks and then it has to be processed by the school after that. We're looking at up to six weeks before the school would ever get around to reviewing it.
Q: All the forms, deadlines, and procedures can probably be overwhelming. What should prospective B-school students do if they have questions about finances along the way?
A: Duke has a unique setup for financial aid. We're not centrally administered, so we don't have to funnel everybody through a central office. This allows us to give a little more attention to the MBA students. Students can always call or send us an e-mail (email@example.com) to get assistance from our office. There's also lots of information on our MBA programs on the Web site. We're in the process of revamping the financial-aid information for this coming year. Hopefully, that will be up in March.
Also, right now we're feverishly working on a new database system where all the student records, including financial-aid records, are maintained. We're trying to determine a way to give students enough access to the database so that they can see where they are in the process.
Q: Paul, in your over-30 years of experience in the financial-aid arena, you've probably seen applicants make a lot of mistakes. Do you have any cautionary advice for future B-school applicants?
A: My first word of caution: Students need to do the federal application as early as possible. They should not wait until they're admitted to a program, because that puts you six weeks behind in terms of getting any information about what you may be eligible for.
The other caution is that if you have consumer debt, you need to get it out of the way before you start a program like this, because the financial-aid budget is not flexible and [it does not allow for] things like consumer debt and car payments.