Back on campus, the FSR and tuition: How financial aid has changed at Whitman

Naia Willemsen, News Reporter

Over the past few semesters, financial aid and the cost of attendance at Whitman have fluctuated; costs were down, then back up. For the 2020-21 school year, there was a 10 percent cut in tuition due to COVID-19 and its financial impacts. That, coupled with students living at home and not paying room and board fees, meant tuition was much lower. 

This semester, however, tuition costs are back to normal, but the way financial aid is calculated has changed for some students.

The Financial Sustainability Report (FSR) was created during the 2020-21 school year “to improve the long-term sustainability of Whitman College,” Chief Financial Officer Peter Harvey said in an email to The Wire

Right now, the main impact seen from the FSR is for students living off campus. Financial aid awards are now based on state recommendations for room and board costs, not the price of living on Whitman’s campus. This means that the amount students are estimated to pay (and thus the amount their award is based on) is based on the cost of living in Seattle. According to Assistant Director of Financial Aid Karri Michelson, this amount “should be more than sufficient for housing here in Walla Walla.”

Senior Mikayla Crowder was worried the FSR would cause a drop in her financial aid. Although the FSR didn’t have the implications she worried about on her financial aid, last spring was a stressful time. Crowder took a leave of absence for the 2020-21 school year, but remained in Walla Walla.

“I remember when the FSR was happening, I’d asked a friend what they thought about it before everything had gotten finalized, and she was like ‘I’m trying not to think about that right now’ with tears in her eyes,” Crowder said. “It was a very stressful time for us reading all [the details of the FSR]. Luckily, it worked out, but we didn’t know.” 

For students at Whitman who receive financial aid, working with the financial aid office is often key. Many students’ attendance at Whitman is dependent upon the financial aid they receive. The unexpected resizing of financial aid packages can have serious repercussions: taking on excess student loans, transferring schools or dropping out altogether.

“We work very hard to support each and every one of our students, especially those whose families are facing challenging times,” Michelson said. “The advantage of a small school like Whitman is that we are able to work closely with families from day one and be very transparent thanks to tools like our Early Financial Aid Guarantee. We develop lasting relationships with our students and families that endure well beyond the decision to enroll.” 

According to the financial aid website, Whitman’s Early Financial Aid Guarantee allows prospective students to see how much financial aid they’ll be awarded at Whitman before applying by submitting a simple form.

However, investigation into financial aid found that some have seen their financial aid change drastically while at Whitman. Senior Bridget O’Brien has seen fluctuations in her financial aid that have caused significant challenges.

“I’ve been on financial aid since I got here, and… ultimately over the course of four years, I found it frustrating because my financial aid has been really inconsistent,” O’Brien said. “Despite my financial situation not changing over the course of four years, the amount of financial aid has drastically changed which has caused a lot of personal and financial stress in my life.”

Despite this shifting financial aid landscape, it seems that Whitman students don’t talk much about their financial aid. 

“One thing I’ve found that has been consistent over my three years at Whitman, even with changes like COVID-19, is that students don’t really talk about money or finances—it’s a taboo topic,” O’Brien said. “And I think that it’s something that needs to be normalized, not necessarily talking specifics, but experiences with money because it’s something that can really impact someone’s experience at Whitman.”

At Whitman, financial aid is treated as an individual problem. Instead of talking about the systems surrounding financial aid and potentially making institutional changes, students are forced to work on a case-by-case basis with the financial aid office.

Both Crowder and O’Brien have had positive experiences dealing with the financial aid office, but even so, having to negotiate one-on-one with financial aid is not ideal.

“I generally think that if I had not reached out to them and actively worked with them on my financial aid package, I would not be going to Whitman right now,” O’Brien said. “It’s made a big difference because the financial aid department has been accommodating, but I wish I didn’t have to work with them as much as I do.”