A Window Into Financial Aid and Real Lives
Posted on August 26, 2012
This is one of the most exciting times of year in the life of a campus, the days before students arrive to start a new academic year. It’s as if our institutional pulse has quickened. Athletes are back and in pre-season training, orientation leaders are being prepared, the operations crew is frantically trying to finish up projects, and faculty members are on campus more as they prepare to start their courses.
Under the surface of this excitement is a more troubling and often sad set of conversations about money. The economy is still in recession (at least as measured by unemployment and real earnings, the only measures that really matter to most people), business is slow, and we have students who sacrifice to be here and even then the math comes up short.
Our excellent Financial Aid staff does everything to make the numbers work and I’ve seen firsthand their advocacy on behalf of students. Inevitably, some of those pleas for more aid make their way to me. I want to share just a couple of those recent cases to provide a window into a world that is often obscured by debates about policies, discount rates, and whether college is a private or public good whose cost should or should not be borne by the government.
Case #1 (with identifying details removed) — Sally:
I last week received a letter from one of our undergraduates, someone in desperate need of financial assiatance to continue attending SNHU. I’ll call her Sally here and she has given me permission to share excerpts from her letter .
Hello President LeBlanc,
First, I would like to express my appreciation and gratitude for all of your hard work at Southern New Hampshire University and your dedication to its students, staff, and faculty. I am proud to be a student and a member of the community here at this university. However, I am worried that I will no longer be able to keep attending this institution. I have exhausted every venue I can utilize to fund my education. I applied for as many SNHU Endowed Scholarships as I was eligible, applied to over 20 outside scholarships, and did not receive any. I applied for a private education loan at the credit union with which I currently have an existing education loan, and was denied. I will owe nearly six thousand dollars for the next year after my financial aid is processed.
Many of my friends have family who has helped them attend college, but I do not have any family that can help me out. All I have is my mom, and she has been turned down for the Parent Plus Loan (twice) and is unable to cosign for private loans. She is doing her best to support me, but is struggling with her health. I want to make her proud of me; I want to make something of myself. You see, I had a difficult childhood growing up. My parents were divorced when I was only two years old. Then when I was nine, a tragedy struck that has forever changed my life. My father committed suicide; I was devastated. It has been a rough road since that time. My mom became a single mother of two trying to support us with a part time job. I can remember times when we would have to stretch $20 over two weeks and the dinner table would often go bare.
I plan to do great things in my life and I need a college education to do them. I want to become a Forensic Psychologist, to help put criminals behind bars and contribute to and protect our society. I have tried everything that I can to make this possible. I am working and saving money, but I know that I will not be able to go on a payment plan of six hundred dollars a month. I understand very well that a college education is costly and I am doing my best to make sure that I can continue going to school. I joined the Army National Guard to serve our country and to be able to keep attending college. However, I was honorably discharged due to my asthma before I was eligible to receive any benefits for college. I have talked with financial aid for help, but they tell me there is nothing else they can do.
I could not agree more with what you said in your blog posting, ‘Punished for trying to improve one’s life’ that, “(w)e know that 65% of new jobs will require post-secondary education and that lack of a college degree will increasingly condemn one to a growing underclass.” This is my driving force. I want to contribute to a better future, a better life for me, and my future family. But to be honest, I am terrified. The thought that I will have to stop my education half way through its completion and not receive a degree, just to have students loans to repay with no chance to get a job that will provide enough to do so, keeps me up at night. What can I do?
Sally is a go-getter, involved in all sorts of campus organizations and with a good GPA that has improved ith each passing semester. She is the kind of young woman who makes the most of her time here and will be a success in her career.
Case #2 — Donna
Donna is an incoming student. This is her letter:
My name is Donna XX. I am an expected incoming freshman at SNHU for the 2012-2013 fall undergraduate program. I understand that my financial aid has covered everything except $6,400 a year and this is why I am writing to you. SNHU is the only school I have wanted to attend ever since I was a little girl. When I got accepted I couldn’t be any happier, but you see my situation is leaving me in a funk. I am very grateful for the grants,scholarships for deca, and the financial aid that has been given to me. It is just that I know that my family cannot afford that $6400 a year. What I meant by my sitaution leaving me in a funk was my family’s financial status. I have not really had much money growing up or any at all, and college was and still is the only thing I am counting on to hopefully make me a better person and to build a career. By not having money, my family and I were forced to move out of our last apartment and put all of our belongings away in storage. I guess I could consider myself as kind of homeless even though we live with one of their friends. I am just unsure of how long we will be able to stay here due to my parents being unemployed. Going to this school is the most important thing to me and I couldn’t think of anything better then to be a part of it. I am just wondering if there is any possible way you could help me with this $6,400 a year. I want to show myself that I can do great things, it’s just that I need some help to get me on my feet to do so. I will do anything and everything I can to prove to that school that my acceptance was not or will not be a waste.
When we have debates about financial aid policy I fear we sometimes simplify and even romantacize the profile of who is trying to attend our schools. A lot of the students we see today come from single parent households, have struggled with poverty, survived health issues (that often contribute to increased poverty), and have wrestled with life challenges that seem too hard or harsh for people so young. Homelessness, suicide of a parent, divorce – these are not a rarity at a school like SNHU with a mission around access and affordability.
In Sally’s case, we were able to provide additional scholarship aid for her last two years. When my assistant Nancy called her to let her know, Sally’s gratitude was drowned in tears of relief and joy.
In Donna’s case, we could have also provided the $6400 of additional aid, but when I read her file I was struck by the amount of debt she was posied to assume. I wrote her the following note:
Sorry for the slow response. I had to have your file pulled and wanted to speak with Julie as well.
We’d love to have you, but even if we make more scholarship aid available to you, you would still be taking on a lot more loan debt. I can’t in good conscious have you come and over four years build an enormous amount of debt that would cripple your financial future for a long time to come. I feel terrible about your family’s situation and urge you consider other more affordable options: our Advantage Programs (just $10,000 per year) or Manchester Community College. Both will allow you to make good progress towards your four-year degree, to transfer into SNHU for your junior and senior years, and make much more economic sense. If you choose the Advantage Program you will get great support, all the classes you need, and I’ll make sure we can cover the cost for you without any borrowing.
Those two years can give you and your family time to get on more secure financial footing. If you maintain good grades you will be guaranteed admission into SNHU’s regular program. So no worries there.
At 17 or 18, big loan debt sounds like an abstraction and a distant problem, but please believe me when I say it is a huge problem for far too many college graduates who then find themselves unable to buy a car or rent a decent apartment (never mind buy a house someday) or take the job they love (needing to take the job that pays better). We can help get you to a four-year degree and you can still have the experience of campus life (albeit less of it than you’d prefer), but let us work with you to map out a path that works for you now and for years later.
Does this make sense?
Happily, Donna reconsidered and is meeting with our SNHU Advantage staff.
There are a few points I’d make about the above cases:
1. When politicians say students should just borrow the money from their families they exhibit an abject lack of understanding about the challenges that so many American families are facing today.
2. Innovation can help. We can’t give Donna the four years on our main campus, but we can give her an SNHU degree program that combines high quality academics for a much lower cost and then get her to the main campus for the final two years and prevent a crippling amount of loan debt that is willing to take on, but shouldn’t.
3. Non-profits are different; motive matters. We are now a large provider of online degree programs, but we don’t have to satisfy shareholders. We can take surpluses and re-invest. In our case, we have kept our tuition low and we have made a lot more aid available for students like Sally and Donna. We don’t maxamize profits — we re-invest in quality, improvements, and students.
4. When Governor Lynch last year eliminated all state grants for students (giving us the dubious distinction of being the only state without state grant aid), we lost reciprocity with other states. Contributing to Sally’s case was her loss of Maine state higher ed grant funding because NH does not provide aid to its students studying in Maine. The Governor said at the time that $1,000 doesn’t make a difference. Actually, it makes a difference to a lot of students in NH and also to students who come to our state to study.
Sally and Donna have stories that end happily (at least I hope they will because the end really only comes when I get to hand them their degrees), but it makes me sad to think about the cases where we just couldn’t make the math work out for students as deserving as Sally and Donna.