Students on financial aid face uncertainty as College transitions to online learning

RB Smith

In the days following the College’s announcement that it will move to remote learning, students receiving financial aid faced uncertainty as they prepared to return home without the resources available to them on campus. 

When Megan Siedman ’20 heard the news, she immediately went to Weston Hall to figure out how online learning would affect her aid package. Like many students, administrators in the Office of Financial Aid were also scrambling, and the first 48 hours after the announcement were filled with confusion.

“Different non-paying students were told different things,” Siedman said. Many students like Siedman whose financial aid package covers the full cost of tuition were unsure if the College’s room and board rebate would apply to them. “Walking out of financial aid and hearing that I might not have food, I was just literally crying,” she said.

 She headed to Paresky, where many students gathered that morning. She reached out to people she trusted in the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) and the Davis Center, and pressed the Financial Aid Office for more details.

The office soon released a video to the entire campus laying out their policies more clearly. All students, regardless of financial aid, would receive a food and board rebate between $1,850 and $3,000, depending on their personal tuition contribution. Additionally, all students on financial aid would receive a $350 work study credit and fully funded travel home if they booked tickets through the website Egencia.

Despite her initial distress, Siedman stressed that the Office of Financial Aid was very prompt in answering her questions and meeting her needs. “I think they’re a really good office. A lot of it is just hidden, if you don’t know how to advocate for yourself and ask about these things,” she said. “[Students] in this position are often the people who aren’t as familiar with higher education systems at large … they’re not aware of how much the school is actually able to take care of and help them.”

Halle Schweizer ’21, president of the College’s branch of QuestBridge, a national organization that helps low-income students apply to top colleges, echoed many of Siedman’s sentiments. “Generally speaking, I am pleased with the financial aid office’s response to the crisis,” she said. “Relative to what I’ve heard from other schools, Williams has been prompt and transparent in how they’ve navigated financial aid during this pandemic.”

Schweizer also emphasized, though, that “it’s really difficult for low-income students to take it upon themselves to ask for help, especially if it’s for money.” She expressed disappointment at the lack of clear communication about what additional expenses could be covered by financial aid. “Many low-income students are expected to help pay bills or buy groceries at home. That is a huge and unaddressed problem,” she said. While the Critical Needs Fund will continue to provide emergency financial support for students who ask for it throughout the semester, Schweizer wished that similar resources had been better publicized.

Other aspects of the College’s emergency financial aid policies have drawn criticism as well. The $350 work study credit, for example, does not scale depending on whether a student’s campus job can be continued remotely. Siedman works for CLiA and is working on ways to do her job from home and keep receiving a paycheck in addition to the $350 credit. But for students like Jared Bathen ’20, whose Hopkins Forest and physical education instructor jobs are tied to the College’s campus, the $350 is all he can receive for the rest of the year.

“I think that it’s probably just over half of the amount that I would have made from my work study jobs in the rest of the semester,” Bathen said. But he also emphasized that “right now, it feels like I’ll be able to get by with it … I feel like they’re doing everything they can to care for students that need help.”

Ashley Bianchi, director of financial aid, explained that the flat $350 to all financial aid students was an intentional choice to expedite disbursement and get students the immediate support they needed. She also pointed out that fully funded travel home was considered to be an additional piece of the work study credit. “In most cases, this combination of funding actually exceeds the amount students would have earned between now and then end of the academic year,” she said. “By standardizing the amount and giving it to all students on financial aid, we were able to ensure that every student has resources for travel and personal expenses for the remainder of the semester.”

Some students also expressed frustration at some of their peers’ responses to the room and board rebate. Siedman described an incident in which someone told her that as a student on a full financial aid package, she did not deserve the rebate for room and board she was not directly paying for. “I don’t even know who this guy was, but he was like ‘why should you get any money to go home if you don’t pay to be here, it’s a refund,’” she said. “I was like ‘well it’s my financial aid’ and he was like ‘well I pay for you to go here, I should be getting that money back.’” Over the course of the last week of school, Siedman encountered multiple other students who, she said, expressed similar ideas.

Bathen, too, had heard the same sentiments. “I’ve heard complaints from students who are not on financial aid or who are on smaller financial aid packages who feel like it’s unfair for students who are not paying for housing or who are paying less than $1,850 for housing to get that large of [a] rebate,” he said. Schweizer had not heard those comments specifically but added that she has “definitely felt like many students at Williams, just due to the demographics of the student population, can’t understand or empathize with financial insecurity.”

The rebate was calculated based on existing refund policies and does not scale according to a student’s meal plan, or whether or not they lived off-campus. “Our goal was to be able to communicate definitive information as quickly as possible to students and families so they could plan for the weeks ahead and as such we took a standardized approach,” Bianchi said. Siedman, Schweizer and Bathen were all pleased with how quickly the College had reacted to their financial needs, but for Siedman, conflicts with fellow students were representative of larger barriers faced by students on financial aid. 

“I can’t speak for anyone else, but this whole experience has been an amplification of the quintessential ‘you’re so lucky to be on the book grant!’ thing,” Siedman said. “It definitely revealed a lot of Williams privilege over the last few days. Which is pretty sad, because then I was like wow … in some ways I feel okay leaving all of this behind, because I guess this is how people have been feeling the whole time.”

Bianchi emphasized the Office of Financial Aid’s continued commitment to students despite their dispersion from campus. “While we know these are trying times and families are concerned about what is to come, we are here (working remotely) and will do our very best to address needs as they arise,” Bianchi said.