Financial aid cuts leave some students short

Lane Barton

Several junior and senior students returned to campus this fall in a more difficult financial situation than they had in their first years at Whitman, in many cases this was because of personal circumstances that affected the amount of aid they receive.

While Whitman’s aid process works for most people, as evidenced by the relatively low average debt which students leave with, it does not work for everyone. Unusual family circumstances can result in students’ aid being cut during their later years in college, when it is both emotionally and academically difficult to transfer.

According to the Whitman Factbook, the average debt for a graduating Whitman senior was $19,147 in 2014, far below the national average of $33,000. Data from the Office of Financial Aid indicates that in the 2015-16 academic year, the average need-based aid package without outside scholarships is $39,400 for first-years, $37,313 for sophomores, $37,757 for juniors, and $35,544 for seniors.

The difficulty for many students who have experienced aid cuts is that their financial aid situations are often in flux for more than just one year due to various personal circumstances. Senior Emily Carrick faced prospects of severe drops in need-based aid this summer, due largely to a tricky tax situation that was specific to her family, after addressing a similar issue prior to her sophomore year.

“There was just a lot of stuff going on [prior to sophomore year] and so [The Office of Financial Aid] was like, ‘You know, we gave you this before so we’re going to stay true to that,’ which we had hoped was going to be all four years. Then this past summer, I got my financial aid package and it had been cut by about 18 thousand dollars,” said Carrick.

Luckily for Carrick, conversations with the Office of Financial Aid about her situation resulted in an adjustment to a much more manageable aid package. However, other students with more common problems, like a sibling who graduated from school or an unexpected addition to family income, are not often able to adjust their package so easily.

Senior Marlee Raible, who faced changes in her financial aid every single year at Whitman, was unsure if a return to Whitman would be feasible for her.

“There was a week during the summer where I was like, ‘I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to come back to Whitman,’ which was really hard because [I’m] a senior and it’s almost worth it to take the huge amounts of loans and finish it than to try and go somewhere else,” said Raible.

Although Raible ended up returning to Whitman, she resorted to taking a course overload this semester in order to reduce tuition costs by paying per credit for her final semester. The experience has left her wishing that it had been easier to account for situations like her own.

“I understand when you’re applying for financial aid [The Office of Financial Aid]…put[s] it into a calculator…and so it’s not able to be subjective the way that in my mind I would hope that it could be for circumstances like my own. So, yes, I understand. Is it right? Is it fair? No, I don’t think so,” said Raible.

While most need-based aid is calculated based upon a family’s income from the previous tax year, Director of Financial Aid Services Marilyn Ponti notes that adjustments can be made on a case-by-case basis.

“There are many situations where we have to use what we call professional judgment, where we go in because a parent lost a job [or] there [were] a lot of medical [costs]…and adjust to help the student. But that depends on each individual student and I think that’s the one thing we need to remember,” said Ponti.

In some cases, transferring becomes the best alternative. Former Whitman student Cleo Young, who looked into transferring after her first year because she was interested in finding a different environment and had alterations to her financial situation, applied for transfers to three schools and received a generous $7,000 aid increase from Macalester College.

“According to [Whitman’s Office of Financial Aid], something unspecified had changed in my [Free Application for Federal Student Aid], and they were giving me $8,000 less than the year before. This made Whitman far more expensive than any of the three other schools I was actually accepted to at that point, and $15,000 more expensive than Macalester,” said Young, now a junior at Macalester, in an email to The Pioneer.

“Since part of me had been wanting this opportunity anyway and it was suddenly $15,000 [per year] less expensive, I took it.”

But even with the interest and incentive to transfer, the shift can still be disruptive for students’ academic progression. Difficulties in transferring credits can often set students behind their peers at their new school.

“I’ve had to contend with meeting a different set of credit requirements in a limited amount of time…I ended up making the decision not to study abroad, which was a good decision, but was something I probably would’ve done had I not transferred,” said Young in an email to The Pioneer.

This issue can be especially problematic for upperclassmen (and seniors in particular) who want to graduate with friends. Carrick notes that even having to consider transferring as a senior, whether or not that occurs, can be difficult because of personal investments in friends and academics on campus.

“No one wants to transfer senior year. I’d like to graduate with my friends and have my credits that I’ve earned here all count towards something. It’s not a great feeling to feel like you have to transfer – it kind of makes you question why you spend so much time and money in one place,” said Carrick.