Illustration by Rohan Joseph Sabu.

The Turning Tides of Financial Equity at NYUAD: The Case for Increased Transparency

Based on recent discourse on campus, there seems to be an increase in partial aid students and more and more barriers for lower income students to overcome. What if NYUAD moved towards transparency and open dialogue with its “global leaders?”

Sep 26, 2022

A little over one year ago I was but a wee, scared first year: eyes wide open, heart racing and foot tapping ceaselessly. I had just landed in Dubai the night before and was finally on my way to what would become my future home. As I pulled away the white curtains and peered out the small Volvo bus windows, I was almost in shock — in a good way. Everything was so new and different from where I had grown up, as I had lived within the same 20 mile radius of small Utah County in the United States.
The bus was filled with NYU Abu Dhabi students and our overflowing bags of luggage — too full for anyone to walk around without climbing over seats to get to the front. Sitting across from me was a rising sophomore who sparked up a conversation with me. She immediately knew I was a first-year student. Back then I did not know how identifiable first years are. I asked the question that every incoming first year asks their fellow upper class peers: “So, what’s NYUAD like?”
The response I got back was what you might expect: the small class sizes are great, it is a bit of a bubble and it is definitely a unique experience. That was until the end of her response, when she mentioned something that would stick with me. She said something along the lines of: the institution has started taking a different direction in the past couple of years, and a lot of students do not necessarily think it has been for the better. She told me that she thought attending NYUAD was still worth it, but primarily for the people — each of whom brought their own unique perspectives and experiences.
The idea did not necessarily make sense to me at first. I could not quite understand what she was saying and felt pretty optimistic about the university I had signed up for. The overwhelming excitement of starting a new life, beginning college and making new friends would push that thought to the back of my mind. Then, slowly but surely, the sentiment would rebubble every so often. The first time I thought back to what she had said was during my first week of Marhaba. Someone in the Class of 2025 noticed that every reference to the university’s need blind financial aid had been erased from the website. If you look back at the 2020 site, you will notice NYUAD stating loud and proud, in bright NYU purple text:
“Admission to NYU Abu Dhabi is need blind: Admissions decisions are made without knowledge of a student's financial need.”
That need blind statement is nowhere to be found on the site today, quietly having changed to need based. The Gazelle has previously reported on this change.
Personally, I take more of an issue with the university being silent about its shifting priorities rather than the statement removal itself.
Since then, the number of partial aid admitted students asking for clarifications or help has increased with every round of admissions, based on anecdotal evidence on NYUAD’s online forums. These stories have an impact on who gets into NYUAD, who ends up attending and even eventually who decides to apply the next year. I have friends back home who would have been a great fit for this university but the sad truth is that I can’t tell them to apply because I know they cannot afford it anymore — and financial aid offices are rarely open to negotiation.
Students whose parents have bigger wallets and better test scores are not inherently better scholars or leaders. It is critical to recognize that those in better economic situations have more money, time and resources to spend on getting higher test scores, participating in more extracurriculars and obtaining better grades. No one should feel bad that they took advantage of these resources as they “should” if they had access to them, so this is not a guilt trip. It is rather only to point out that these starkly different backgrounds should be taken into consideration in the admissions process and financial aid application. Some students here grew up as an employee first and a student second — working full time to support their families. Others, including myself, were lucky enough to be able to focus on academics.
Other barriers for students have been manifesting in smaller, more subtle ways. Charging 180 USD for bed linens, directly to the bursar account? Or making students source their own SIM cards in a city, at least Abu Dhabi, where access to a phone number for Covid-19 testing and vaccine verification is necessary almost everywhere? For a student with enough disposable income, these hurdles should not present much of a burden. But for students living without that same level of financial stability, all of these changes present an attitude of apathy and little compassion for those in such circumstances.
Economic situations are continually shifting and our world is currently failing to provide affordable education — or even education at all in some areas — all across the world. With fears of a global recession looming in the background, changes to financial aid support are expected and greater financial inequity at educational institutions is anticipated.
I am not happy about this, but I can understand. What is not okay is failing to be transparent about this shift in priorities while pretending that nothing has changed. Instead, the shifting socioeconomic demographic of students at NYUAD is an issue that must be addressed head on. Rather than the institution quietly making changes to policies and hoping students do not notice or care enough to protest, I suggest we look at the issue holistically: what changes does NYUAD need to make in order to survive, how will that affect the student body and most importantly, what are we all doing to address it? Open dialogue is what helps these changes be implemented in the least disruptive way possible.
I can believe in an institution that claims to raise global leaders by hand selecting a student body that is not only racially and culturally diverse but also economically and politically diverse. No matter how much geographical diversity you have, I believe you cannot achieve a global mindset by only taking students from the one percent of every country. How is this generation supposed to be able to solve “the world’s most pressing problems” if none of us have lived them?
Do not get me wrong, I love this university. I chose NYUAD because I thought — and still do think — it is different from any other institution. It is easy to complain, but it is just as important to recognize and feel gratitude for the opportunities NYUAD provides us all.
That said, it is because I love NYUAD that I care enough to criticize it. I want future generations to be able to experience what NYUAD provides us now and for the world to be better because of it. Rather than silently heading the way of every other international college where only one percent can afford to attend, NYUAD should take steps towards transparency, taking advantage of its “global leaders” who would be more than happy to help find solutions.
Corban Villa is Web Chief and Opinion Editor. Email him at
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