Ambivalence surrounds aid issue

Students feel the weight of the financial crisis on campus through delayed projects, less available funding and reminders of shrunken endowment, but the College continues to reiterate that financial aid will remain a top priority. Although the hard data about financial aid need hasn’t changed dramatically from past years, students’ home situations have been affected in varying degrees, engendering feelings of both trust and concern about the College’s aid policies.

The Financial Aid Office recently placed 80 families who are currently receiving financial aid on a reassessment list, to determine whether they need more aid in order to continue attending the College. This number does not differ substantially from data of previous years, which Bill Lenhart, provost, was “heartened to see.” Approximately 40 cases have been reviewed so far, and around 20 have been awarded increased aid due to changes in their financial situations.

“If [a student’s] parent’s contribution goes down, we will meet the change, whatever it is, with additional scholarships from the College,” Boyer said. As President Schapiro has noted in several campus-wide e-mail announcements, financial aid remains a top priority, despite the decrease in the College’s endowment.

Several students who were not on a financial aid plan in the fall requested that their situations be reassessed. Despite changes in their parents’ incomes, however, most of these students’ families still have incomes and assets too high to qualify for need-based financial aid.
Two or three families who did not receive aid during first semester but applied for second semester will receive it due to their severely altered financial situations. The surprisingly small scale of the changes in financial aid are “good for the pocketbooks at the College, but I’m sure the families are having a hard time,” Boyer said.

These families, who do not receive aid because they barely meet the cutoff income mark, still struggle to pay the entire tuition cost. Elleree Erdos ’12 is one of the students who was not receiving financial aid when the semester began but reapplied in the fall after the economic crisis damaged her family’s income. Her request was denied, as her family still met requirements by a slim margin. Since the situation has worsened, she is reapplying again for the 2009-2010 year.

“I feel like there are a lot of people who are frustrated with the system because their situation is worse than demonstrated on paper,” she said. “I might not need as much financial aid as other people, but our situation has still changed drastically. I know other schools are not handling the economic crisis nearly as well as [the College] is, and I’m glad [the College] is seeking out people who do need a lot of financial aid, but I think people on the borderline need more attention too.”

In the near future, additional increases in needed aid are expected, according to Boyer. The Financial Aid Office is currently sending out renewal financial aid materials, and Boyer expects that – as was true in 2008 when compared to previous years – more upperclassmen will apply to receive aid in the first semester of 2009.

According to Boyer, there was a 5 percent increase in the pool of students applying for aid among early decision applicants. Following this trend, the Admission and Financial Aid Offices saw a sizable increase in the number of accepted students who qualified for financial aid. Although it’s still early to predict with certainty the outcome of next fall, the College is already planning to accommodate changes in families’ financial situations. “We – always plan conservatively and are therefore planning a substantial increase for financial aid budget in the coming year,” Lenhart said.
Some students worry that increased aid given to some families will result in decreased aid given to others. “While my situation hasn’t directly changed [as a result of the economic crisis], I’m affected, because there’s only a certain amount of money the school can give,” said Jamaal Johnson ’12, a student currently receiving financial aid. “If I were to receive less I would feel that I was done a great injustice by the school, being told one thing and having another happen.”

The Financial Aid Office remains optimistic about the plans to award increased aid to students in need, even in the midst of the economic crisis. Financial aid will continue to increase when need increases. “As always, we intend to meet the full demonstrated need of every student who comes to Williams,” Lenhart said.

Mostly, Johnson believes the reassuring statements issued by President Schapiro and the Financial Aid Office. “I’m fairly sure [I won’t receive less aid] because of the work Morty and the Board has done to minimize the effects of the economic downturn,” Johnson said. “If students were [prevented from attending the College], there would be a loud outcry from everyone, and I don’t think it’s conceivable that the school could do that in a formalized manner.”

“Financial aid has always been and continues to be at the forefront of our program – there are no cutbacks in the horizon,” Boyer said. “The College can be creative when challenged, and it can pull resources together to make the program equally as generous as in the past. The good news for students is that it’s business as usual.”

Although financial aid is not a common public discussion topic, the economic crisis has affected students’ families in varying ways. Viktor Nagy ’12, an international student from Hungary, has seen definite changes recently. “We’ve been affected like many other families have been affected due to other reasons,” he said. His family owns an office supplies company, and in Europe especially, the textile and paper industry has been hindered by the crisis. International students in particular would be affected if aid cuts occurred. “We can’t just go back home and start everything over again because it’s not as flexible [in our countries] as the system here,” he said.

And as is well known, it costs more to attend this college than almost any other institution, in the U.S. and around the world. The staggering disparity between this tuition and those of British universities almost prevented Dicken Chaplin ’12, an international student from England, from attending the College. The London School of Economics (LSE), one of the world’s best institutions for economics, costs around $13,000 per year including room and board. Comparing this to the College’s $47,530 bill led his family to have doubts about his education here.

“If it weren’t for the amazing package that [the College] put together for me, there was no way I could have justified to my parents coming all the way here, to a place that’s pretty much unknown in the U.K., instead of to a place as well known as LSE,” he said. “Although this year’s tuition has increased significantly because of the weakening of the pound, I am sure the College will reassess my situation to ensure that my parents can afford to keep me here.”

Nagy also remains optimistic about receiving increased financial aid after being reevaluated for next year. “The College is doing a very good job of informing us that they will have to sacrifice more for financial aid,” he said. “I’m convinced that my family won’t have to spend as much more as will be a burden to my education. It’s not like we’re dying or starving, especially not on campus. Parents are concerned, and I’m sure it will cause economic hardships but not one person will have to withdraw from the College – but we will have to see the results of the new financial aid packets.”

Erdos also appreciates the College’s efforts to maintain financial aid as a top priority, but she has reservations about how well the plans will be carried out. “I feel like maybe this time around I will get financial aid, but I thought we would before and we didn’t,” she said. “I know [the College] is doing an exceptional job for people who need it, but I also know a lot of people who are frustrated.”