A new student organization, the Peaceful Protest of the Financial Aid System, formed this summer to question the transparency and sympathy of UR’s Office of Financial Aid.
The creation of this group has given rise to controversy over which aspects of the current system can and cannot be controlled by UR. Collaboration with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and coordination with administration and Students’ Association are pending.
The group formed when Sophomore Alex Wark received his financial aid package and saw that it had been reduced by $13,000 per year. He created a Facebook group to gauge interest from students in similar situations, and within a week there were over 500 members.
Wark noted that the interested students included not only people impacted by changed packages, but also people whose friends were affected.
“We’re all a family, and when a classmate is struggling because they don’t know about their academic future, it affects the people that they know and the people that they work with.”
Sophomore Kelsey Fenner, an executive member of this currently-unrecognized club, noted that several students, including herself, are in situations similar to Wark’s.
“We are concerned about the Financial Aid system because there have been a lot of people […] who have come to us and said that they have had their financial aid reduced greatly,” Fenner said.
Fenner’s aid was cut by 94 percent, doubling the amount of tuition she has to pay per year. As a result, Fenner, along with several other Peaceful Protest members, plans to transfer after this semester.
The organization is still in the process of establishing a presence on campus and communicating with the administration.
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Jonathan Burdick said he is looking forward to the dialogue the group will introduce between students and Financial Aid. He has communicated with Wark over Facebook, but not extensively as he has been abroad working for Admissions.
“I love student activism,” Burdick said. “I think that students should ask tough questions and participate in policy […] I would relish any chance to […] explain everything we think we’re doing with Financial Aid and get their insight on how it might be better.”
Burdick will meet with Students’ Association Oct. 20 to discuss these issues. He stated that, as far as he remembers, it is the first time since his term at UR began in 2003 that a student group has formed around the issue of Financial Aid.
The new group listed their problems as a lack of transparency between students and Financial Aid, the aid decision release date being after transfer deadlines, and the inability to apply for any other aid once the decision has been released.
Their central focus is improving the notification system to prevent students from being blind-sided by cuts in their Financial Aid packages.
Burdick said he agrees that there should be more openly-disclosed acknowledgement of the fact that from year to year, Financial Aid packages are reevaluated and can change.
He also agreed that the turnover rate of counselors, as well as counselors’ communication with students, should improve.
Fenner and Wark’s packages changed for typical reasons. Fenner’s older sibling graduated, and Wark’s neighbors moved, increasing the value of his home. Financial Aid uses such changes to lower aid.
Sophomore Alex Samuelson, who is also an executive member of the club, said she represents a slightly different demographic. She was denied her appeal for aid in the beginning of her freshman year after she left ROTC, which would have paid her tuition. This has made her particularly interested in the appeal process.
Burdick stressed that all aid is determined by a CollegeBoard program in which Financial Aid counselors input values and receive an output that determines the package. The purpose of this system is to standardize how each student is judged in a way that fairly distributes money among those who need it.
Of the current system, he said, “The one thing that is true about financial aid is that it’s designed to spread the available dollars equitably across everybody using the same exact inputs and formula to determine how much every family can afford.”
Originally, each students’ package was fixed over time, meaning families whose financial situations improved even slightly could effectively pay tuition. According to Burdick, this helps families who are in stable financial situations, but hurts those who struggle. He referred to 2008, when the financial services firm Lehman Brothers collapsed and UR invested $1.5 million to help students’ whose parents lost work.
Wark commented on the complaint that transfer deadlines could not be met based on the release date of aid packages.
“I got my financial aid [around] late June, and by that time it was too late to transfer to other schools.”
The club proposes an earlier deadline for students to send their financial information in order to move up the release date. According to Burdick, this is unrealistic.
Burdick said that while current students are submitting their financial information for review, the Financial Aid staff is working on determining packages for incoming freshman. Therefore, the staff would need to be doubled in order to get packages released to current students before transfer application deadlines passed.
Burdick also stressed that students’ decisions to transfer is a result of a “value proposition question.”
“When someone says they’re not getting enough financial aid,” Burdick said, “it doesn’t mean they’re not getting as much financial aid as they need, it means they’re not getting as much financial aid as they want.” He continued, “My goal is to make it so that nobody has to drop out […] the only thing we can’t do is fully change this value proposition. That’s a choice that every consumer makes […] and that’s outside of financial aid’s control.”
Fenner said that while she knows every individual has a choice about where to go to school, she feels that UR does not value students for the right reasons.
“By leaving, I am making a bold statement that I don’t feel the University of Rochester is worth what they want me to pay,” Fenner said, “and I’m prepared to leave Rochester and forge a new path somewhere where my value as a person and student feels less like it’s tied to the tuition bill I pay each semester.”
Wark acknowledged that the club understands no one is being personally victimized.
“I think it would be selfish to say financial aid is ‘out to get us,’” Wark said. “I feel like there’s just so much pressure on them to make the most money.”
The Peaceful Protest also questions the sources of funds that go to Financial Aid. SDS told the Peaceful Protest group that alumni donations to aid do not necessarily go directly to students, but can be disguised as such.
In response, Burdick said, “Alumni donations for scholarships are donations to the University and become part of the overall funding supply. It’s fair to say that some of that money flows directly into student pockets while some pays for other expenses (which are most often also for the benefit of students, at least within the College).”
Speaking further about the source of aid and its development over time, Burdick continued, “A one-million-dollar scholarship donation to endowment produces about $55,000 per year in scholarship money for spending on that year’s students. So in a sense the big donation sounds 19 times better than it is for any one year. Yet a growing endowment is a huge benefit to everyone long term.”
Samuelson said of the group’s ultimate goal, “I just feel like we’re trying to give everyone a voice […] this is a problem that so much of our student body is going through right now.”