Financial Aid Presents Struggle, Opportunity for FGWC Students

Emily Lin-Jones

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Illustration by Lya Hernandez.

Shelly Le contributed additional reporting.

For students from lower-income backgrounds, financial aid is often a critical part of their decision to attend Whitman––but navigating the ups and downs of financial aid from semester to semester can pose a significant challenge, even with support from the Office of Financial Aid itself.

“It’s definitely a little blow to the self esteem … a sense of anxiety comes, a lot of worry,” said junior first-generation student Heather Lovelace, who identifies as working class, on receiving her aid package each semester.

Lovelace recalls being intimidated and overwhelmed by the process of applying for financial aid even before she made the decision to attend Whitman.

“I think one thing I was really perturbed with about the college application process is that it seems like everyone just expects you to know these things, and when you have questions, no one is forthcoming with information,” she said.

Though Lovelace has relied on scholarships, loans and summer income to be able to attend Whitman, she said the financial aid she has received hasn’t always reflected her family’s need.

“My parents are kind of in that middle class area where they make too much for a lot of [need-based aid], but they don’t make enough where they can pay for the school,” she said.

There are times in the past, she recalls, when she wasn’t sure if she would be able to continue to pay for Whitman.

“One thing I remember distinctly was that I emailed the financial aid office and someone replied, and they said ‘You have to think about your future,’ and stuff like that, just really not what I needed or wanted to hear,” she said.

She admitted that many of her past dealings with Whitman’s Office of Financial Aid have left her stressed and dissatisfied.

“I haven’t been very impressed with our Whitman financial aid office, but I don’t know if it’s them or just the system … I understand that college is not cheap, but it’s hard when you get a financial aid package that you don’t think reflects what your family can afford.”

Lovelace’s struggle to continue to finance her four years at Whitman isn’t unique. Other students, like first-generation and working class junior Leslie Rodriguez and first-generation and working class senior Bridget Tescher, report wrestling with confusing federal guidelines, changing home situations and inconsistencies in their yearly financial aid packages.

Rodriguez said she stressed over finances a lot during her first semester at Whitman, when it seemed like her work study and scholarship package wouldn’t be enough to cover tuition. Her mother sold homemade tamales to friends and co-workers to help make up the difference.

“I think [there is] the whole question of ‘Is it ethical to bring students from low socioeconomic [backgrounds] to Whitman?’ …. Whitman accepts a certain amount of [these] students …. Why are they accepting students only for them to later say they might not be able to meet some of their needs?” she asked. “Is it ethical for them to accept these students and put them through four years [of college] and for them to financially struggle during the process?”

Tescher, like Rodriguez, was the first in her immediate family to attend college. She is largely financially independent from her parents, and like other students in similar situations, is often frustrated that the college won’t always acknowledge this.

“Ironically, the biggest pet peeve I have is that Whitman always sends my financial statement to my parents … they always mail it to my dad, and every time it beyond frustrates me,” said Tescher.

The Office of Financial Aid awarded need-based aid to 45 percent of the student body last year. The college offers some forms of aid specifically aimed at first-generation students, including the Lomen-Douglas scholarship, which is awarded to students who “contribute to increasing socioeconomic and multicultural diversity awareness at Whitman.” Many past recipients of this scholarship have identified themselves as first-generation and working class students.

“When we admit a student who is first generation and diverse, we believe that it is important that we be committed to their financial aid and helping them,” said Director of Financial Aid Services Marilyn Ponti.

According to Ponti, the college will usually try to award 80 to 85 percent of a first-generation student’s need in the form of scholarship money. But even students who receive scholarships usually have an expected family contribution as well, anywhere from $1000 to $2000 per semester or more.

There is an expected family contribution … and the parents need to be responsible for that. If they aren’t, we can’t ignore that,” said Ponti.

Though the Office of Financial Aid does try to meet each student’s need to the best of their ability, there are limits to what they can do, she said.

In financial aid, we try to work with every single student and every single family, but we can’t just allow every family to say ‘We’re not going to pay our contribution…’ If that were the case, we wouldn’t be able to help as many students as we do,” she said. “We have many conversations this time of year, that maybe Whitman is not the right fit [for incoming students] if you’re not able to make it work financially. Those are conversations we have to have.”

The disconnect between the reality of Tescher’s situation and the college’s perception of it came to a fore when her dad remarried last year. She lost her Pell Grant as a result, and Whitman did not adjust her financial aid package to compensate for the loss, even though her stepmother would not be contributing to her tuition.

Tescher blames the disconnect in part on the college basing their initial picture of students’ financial situations almost entirely on the FAFSA and other federal documents.

“Especially because my parents don’t contribute anything to my financial [situation]. They don’t pay for anything, [and] they can’t pay for anything. And so it was like, there was already zero dollars coming in to me from my parents … it went from unrealistic to completely unfeasible. And that put me in the predicament of having to walk away from my degree my senior year,” she said.

Since the Office of Admission switched their process from need-blind to need-sensitive four years ago, the amount of need-based aid awarded each year has remained approximately the same, while the amount of students receiving only merit-based aid has almost doubled.

Meanwhile, the average amount of loans taken out by Whitman students has risen over the past five years, but the college has been increasing its expenditure on financial aid as well.

We don’t encourage students to take significant debt. That’s not what we do,” said Ponti, pointing out that the average debt of a graduating Whitman senior is significantly lower than the national average.

To keep debt levels low, Ponti periodically checks up on students who she sees are taking on significant amounts of debt to see if their need can be re-evaluated. She acknowledged that it can be difficult for students to speak up about their financial situation.

“Sometimes students are a little quieter, a little afraid to reach out … if I reach out to them, that’s easier,” she said.

Some students have found financial aid workshops and mentorship from the FGWC club and other on-campus organizations that has helped them learn how to navigate the difficult financial aid process.

“Deciphering [financial aid] was really hard at the beginning, but I feel like I’ve gotten better at it because FGWC has had financial workshops that really helped me,” said Rodriguez.

Still, students who receive significant amounts of aid agree there could be more resources on campus for students who have to balance the stress of school and work with applying for loans and scholarships, especially when their parents are not able to help.

“I think that it would be amazing if we had something like financial counseling, or maybe someone within the Counseling Center [who] specializes in advice for financial aid and paying for school,” said Lovelace.

After approaching the Office of Financial Aid several times in person to plead her case, Tescher was granted enough additional scholarship money to complete her degree. Though she found the college supportive and willing to help once she got through to them, she knows it wouldn’t have happened without her taking the initiative.

“I think that they’ve been really good. And they did come through, that was the amazing thing,” she said. “[But] I think that if I hadn’t asked for it, obviously they wouldn’t have offered it.”