BEIRUT: Since Ahmad Dallal was appointed provost of the American University of Beirut in 2009, he has worked with various departments to boost the university’s financial aid program, reform the admissions process, and is currently chairing a task force to revive the university’s tenure system, which has been suspended since the Civil War.
As the Feb. 1 deadline to apply for financial aid approaches, The Daily Star sat down with Dallal to discuss AUB’s scholarship program and some of the other changes that have taken place under his watch.
Q: How has AUB’s financial aid system developed since you became provost?
A: We’ve developed the financial aid system significantly. In the 2001-2002 [academic year], the financial aid budget was in the order of $2.5 million or so. Now it’s close to $20 million, and we have plans to increase it to $30 million. Of course, this is not counting programs like USAID, which is in addition to the regular financial aid budget. This is the amount that comes out of the university’s operating budget. It includes a portion that is restricted, which is money that is donated to the university by external donors.
The one big issue we’ve had with the former financial aid program, which the current reforms are partly designed to address, is that the restricted portion of the financial aid budget was large.
This is money that comes from donors who say we want to give you this amount of money and we want you to give it to students who come from this particular region, or students of a certain ethnic background, or students who have certain traits. There are cases where donors give us money that becomes part of an endowment and let us spend it depending on the identified needs of students.
We have an elaborate system to calculate the need factor of the students, who can also petition and submit more evidence to convince AUB to rethink the offered financial aid package. Based on the need factor and the available resources, we distribute the available funds to deserving students.
With the restricted funds, the donor can say that she or he wants to pay 100 percent of a student’s tuition, although according to our system the student might deserve only 40 percent financial aid. In that case the allocation of financial aid appears to be inequitable. As such, donor-restricted funds give the impression that students of similar need levels are treated differently.
Q: Are you trying to reduce the amount of restricted financial aid funding you receive?
A: Of course not. We are grateful to generous donors who wish to provide full support, and would not discourage them from doing so. We are so thankful to all donors who want to help students in need have access to AUB. However, the fact that three years ago more than half of our financial aid budget was restricted accentuated a sense of inequity in financial aid distribution.
Now, we continue to raise funds and we often try to raise funds which are not restricted.
If donors want to give us restricted funds, we welcome that as well, but we’re also increasing the portion that comes out of our own operating budget so we have flexibility and can distribute equitably across the university.
Q: What portion now is restricted?
A: About three quarters of the financial aid budget is unrestricted.
Now we continue to bring in funds. And many of the funds that we raise are endowments that are not earmarked for specific groups or specific parts of spending.
Q: How much financial aid is awarded annually outside your operating budget?
A: We aggressively pursue fundraising opportunities and grant applications. There is the MEPI program and the USAID which now turned into USP. Initially USAID gave us a pool of money which ranges from 1 to several million dollars. I think over a period of three years, we received close to $7 million for a cohort of students throughout their education.
USAID moved from a model where they gave AUB money to distribute among a large number of students as partial scholarships to awarding full scholarships to a smaller number of students. A few years ago, we had between 600 and 800 students benefitting from this program, but lately the program offers grants that cover full tuition to students from various districts in Lebanon.
USAID wanted an even distribution of male and female students, and full representation of all 26 districts in Lebanon. Of course, students have to pass admissions tests, and we created special remedial programs to attract extremely disadvantaged students and help them adjust to their new environment. We were able to recruit two or three students from 24 out of 26 districts, and we ended up with about 50 students on full scholarships.
Q: What portion of the financial aid you award is need-based and what portion is merit-based?
A: We have an agreement with the Lebanese government through the Lebanese National Council for Scientific Research. The government pays about half of the tuition of the top five students in each track of the Baccalaureate, and AUB pays the balance of the tuition and a modest stipend for students who wish to study at AUB. This is merit-based.
Most of the students are disadvantaged but would not necessarily qualify for full coverage if they were to rely solely on the university’s financial aid system. We have about 200 students who receive merit-based scholarships, but we have 2,500 to 2,700 students who receive partial tuition coverage.
The average scholarship received is close to 40 percent of the tuition. So, a little less than half of the students at AUB receive financial aid and the average amount of a financial aid grant is 40 percent of tuition.
And over and above financial aid, we support students who apply for federal grants [educational loans from the U.S. government]. These grants are available to U.S. citizens or students of Lebanese origins who have dual citizenships. We also negotiated a supplemental, low-interest loan system with Lebanese banks to help students cover up to an additional 30 percent of their tuitions in loans.
Q: Did Lebanese banks not give student loans before?
A: They did, but previously the banks only supported professional schools and only supported the students who were able to provide collateral. In other words, only students who have the resources to guarantee payment in their immediate family, which means that the least needy students are the ones who were more likely to benefit from these loans.
Q: What was the interest on these loans?
A: I’m not sure of the exact number, but we negotiated very low interest rates compared to what was available before. By the way, this is only a portion of the tuition. A student might get a 40 or 50 percent scholarship and an additional loan covering a maximum of 30 percent of tuition costs, if they wish to. Some students don’t like to use this option so we leave it up to them.
Q: So how do these students pay tuition?
A: They get a portion of financial aid covering on average 40 percent and up to 60 or 70 percent of tuition, and they can get a loan or they can get supplemental tuition from their own resources.
Q: Do all universities in Lebanon give as much scholarship money from their operating budgets as AUB?
A: They don’t, but they are not as expensive. Our tuition is high by Lebanese standards and the education we offer is comparable to good American universities. There are a few universities that give financial aid, but I don’t think anyone has as comprehensive a financial system as we do.
The financial aid we’re discussing does not include work study programs; and we don’t actually give university loans but we facilitate loans with banks over and above financial aid. What we offer is a grant, and the student is not expected to give anything back.
A truly financially disadvantaged student could get a significant portion of the tuition waived through a scholarship or a financial aid grant. Then he or she can get a loan, and probably make some income through our work study program. Together, these resources can cover almost all of the tuition or 90 percent of it, which makes it much more affordable.
Q: Can you tell me about the recent changes to AUB’s admissions process?
A: A long time ago, the university went into an almost purely numerical admissions system to ensure impartiality. There are advantages and disadvantages to this process because we can miss certain things.
What we’ve been working very hard on, and what we continue to work on, is to try to have a qualitative evaluation component without giving up the numerical part.
So the metrics are still there. Previously, admissions relied exclusively on SAT scores and school grades point averages. Today, without compromising objectivity, we are trying to evaluate the applications qualitatively by looking at personal essays and taking into account various aspects of a student’s profile.
We tested this system last year and implemented it for the first time this year for the freshman class. It took us two years to develop this system. We pretested it, and we tested the results against purely numerical ones. We are currently working on a similar system for sophomore admissions.
Q: Does a student need to have a certain grade and test-score thresholds for the qualitative portions to be considered?
A: Two groups are straightforward: Some students have exceptional scores and are immediately admitted, and there are others that have very, very low scores and no matter what appears on their qualitative applications, they simply don’t make the cut. Then there is a large gray area in the middle where we’ve tried to combine both quantitative and qualitative evaluations.
We’ve developed a system in which several people independently evaluate each application from this middle pool without coordinating with each other when they score.
So in this way we ensure that the qualitative component of the evaluation is impartial and objective.
Q: Don’t most AUB students enter in sophomore year anyway?
A: Yes, but we have a significant pool of freshmen. About a fifth of new students enter as freshmen and the rest as sophomores.
Q: How can grades or class ranking be purely objective when the quality of education differs between schools?
A: That is accounted for because we standardize the average school performance against the performance of the students from that particular school, and we have mechanisms to correct for these differences.
We no longer have feeder schools. We don’t give preferential treatment to one particular school, but at the same time we’ve tried to introduce factors that take into account the performance of the students from that particular school here at AUB and the performance of that student within their own cohort group.
So it’s not just pure performance in isolation, but the performance of individual students is standardized by taking into account the performance of their cohort.
Q: Where do you get the data to do standardization?
A: We have the data. Schools provide us with ranks but we also track the performance of students at AUB. We know where they came from, and we know how they performed here at AUB. We regularly update our data. A problem arises in cases when we don’t have a record for a school and this is when the qualitative portion becomes more important.
Q: Are there specific regions of the country that are least represented in the student body because of a lower quality of education?
A: There are good schools throughout Lebanon. The primary factor that prevents students from joining AUB is a financial factor, and that’s why it’s important to have a viable financial aid program. We’re trying to make our financial program much more viable than it used to be, and we continue to search for opportunities to help students across the board.
Q: Is AUB planning to reinstate its tenure system?
A: Tenure was suspended about 30 years ago during the Civil War as a way of safeguarding the academic standards of the university, at a time when many faculty members left AUB.
What we’ve done is we’ve reformed the promotion system in the university and moved into a much more transparent, rigorous and fair system with much more job security.
Previously a professor’s contract was renewed for three years at a time, but now the standard is seven-year contracts, which makes for much more job security.
Beyond that, a university task force which I chair is working on putting together a proposal to restore tenure. We might be a rare example of an academic institution trying to restore tenure after suspending it. We’re working on it, but it is not an easy task, and it will have to be accepted by the faculty and approved by the board of trustees.