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Emory’s expanded financial aid doubles undergrads on pace to graduate debt-free
Sisters Araceli and Yesenia Manuel

Sisters Yesenia (left) and Araceli Manuel are first-year students in Emory College who matched with Emory through QuestBridge Scholars. The nonprofit connects high-achieving, low-income students with top universities.

— Kay Hinton/Emory Photo Video

The expansion of the Emory Advantage program this fall has more than doubled the number of undergraduates on pace to take on limited, if any, debt. Emory’s longstanding partnership with “an aggregator of excellence” for low-income students offers a glimpse into the impact that kind of support can have for future graduates.

The new policy launched in the fall had an immediate impact this semester, with almost 3,100 undergrads receiving Emory Advantage grants. That’s a more than 143% increase from a year ago.

Making an Emory undergraduate education more affordable is a priority of the university’s Student Flourishing Initiative and can translate into academic and career success for years to come. Campus leaders have seen such results for a decade through Emory’s partnership with QuestBridge Scholars, a national nonprofit that connects high-achieving, low-income students with Emory and several of the nation’s top universities.

“It would have cost me more to go to community college than it did to go to Emory,” says Logan Miller, a QuestBridge Scholar and 2015 graduate in music performance and history.

Graduating debt-free allowed Miller to tour as a singer-songwriter and guitarist with a contemporary Christian band for two years, then earn his master’s degree in theology while launching his own record label. “It really did change the trajectory of my life,” he says.

Emory President Gregory L. Fenves announced the expansion of Emory Advantage in January 2022. Originally started in 2007 for low- and middle-income families, the program replaces need-based loans with institutional grants and scholarships.

The decision to automatically meet all undergraduate students’ demonstrated financial needs without loans will, over time, mean more students graduate with no or limited debt.  Of 1,863 first-year students this fall, about 35% received Emory Advantage. 

By comparison, 37% of the graduating class of 2021 took out loans.

“If we can allow students not to worry about debt, they can fully engage and truly enjoy the Emory experience,” says Timothy Fields, senior associate dean of undergraduate admission, who also serves as the QuestBridge liaison. 

“That freedom and engagement are the things that create opportunities for students’ long-term success, while supporting our commitment to creating the best class of students every year,” Fields adds.

“It’s just the beginning”

QuestBridge works by having qualified students apply through its National College Match program, ranking their interest among 42 top partner colleges and universities. Students whose interest matches with Emory receive early-decision admission, typically the first admitted students of the new class, with a guarantee of full financial support to start at Emory College of Arts and Sciences or Oxford College.

Students who do not first match may also apply for Regular Decision admission, with generous similar need-based financial aid.

Unlike many partner universities that only “match” with applicants with no expected family contribution, Emory has long provided institutional grants to low-middle income applicants as a way to draw bright students. 

Similarly decreasing those financial hurdles with the expansion of Emory Advantage helped make Emory’s Class of 2026 one of the most dynamic in university history. The class includes sisters Araceli and Yesenia Manuel, the daughters of Mexican immigrants who emphasized education despite their limited means.

The sisters had figured out how to dual enroll in a local community college after completing all of the AP classes their South Carolina high school offered. Yet they were uncertain how to finance their dreams of becoming an ophthalmologist (Araceli) and veterinarian (Yesenia), until a friend recommended QuestBridge.

They had never heard of Emory before that, despite growing up only three hours away. The extensive health sciences programs were an immediate draw. Learning about limited class sizes also appealed to them as a way to ease their transition from a small public high school.

The winning factor, though, was Emory’s proximity to home, where they could visit family and one another, should they not match at the same college. Just 10 months apart in age, the sisters had never spent more than 24 hours away from each other.

They still haven’t. They arrived on campus through STEM Pathways, share a residence hall room and have several classes together.

The sisters also branched out. Araceli has joined the Emory Art Club and makeup club and explored both peer tutoring and mentoring. Yesenia has sampled ballroom dancing, bird watching and applied to be an Emory Ambassador. 

Both have weighed a major in anthropology, after taking Emory anthropologist Elizabeth Lonsdorf’s “animals through the ages” first-year seminar. Yesenia is especially open to finding a new career path and is considering majoring in environmental sciences or business.

“Is it possible to have a dream come true that you could never dream of? It feels like a really big blessing to have this opportunity to experiment and learn so much,” Yesenia says.

“It’s just the beginning,” Araceli adds. “I can’t wait for how it will be here after four years of this much effort being put into us. I’m amazed at just thinking about it.”

Building community

Wei Wei Chen embraced every opportunity that came her way as a QuestBridge Scholar, and later as a Dean’s Achievement Scholar. She wanted to become a storyteller and decided the best way to do that was to expand her horizons. She enrolled, and excelled, in a wide array of classes while also creating and nurturing several arts initiatives on campus.

That leadership and commitment to service led to her selection as the McMullan Award recipient when she graduated with a degree in film studies in 2018. She also won the prestigious Robert T. Jones Scholarship, which funded her master’s degree in contemporary studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Chen returned to the U.S. for an internship at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, during which she also worked part-time and lived in a hostel to survive on a stipend while starting to pay off her small loan. 

“I went into the creative industry expecting financial risks,” Chen says. “But I was comfortable pursuing my goals because Emory gave me the support to try new things.”

Without large debt looming, she decided to pursue a creative job at CNN in Atlanta when the internship ended.

After her internship, Chen started at CNN Creative Marketing in March 2020, where she helps conceive, write and produce promotional material for the channel’s original series, films and news shows. The job has allowed her to be an active mentor at CNN in the Emory and QuestBridge alumni networks while also helping her support her parents.

“I’ve gotten a lot of help to get where I am, so it is important to me to give back,” Chen adds. 

The desire to give back — to family, to Emory, to the world at large — is a driving force for many students Julio Medina meets as an assistant professor in the dance and movement studies program and as adviser to the student-run Emory QuestBridge Scholars Network (EQSN).

Medina, who graduated in 2013 as a member of Emory’s second QuestBridge cohort, feels the same push. It’s why he oversaw a student initiative to create QuestFam, pairing first-years with older students as mentors, and why he has helped expand professional opportunities and other support for EQSN students.

The work, he says, supports students and Emory alike. It also lets Emory live up to its motto and create impact well beyond campus.

“The wise person will seek a diverse set of knowledge, and you need people from all different backgrounds for that,” Medina says. “I think the QuestBridge network has been a model of how to build that kind of community at Emory.”

“In the bigger picture,” Medina adds, “Emory is making the world a better place by investing in scholarships that helps build the compassionate leaders we need more than ever.”

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