Mayday, Mayday, Mayday

Faith SandlerEducation, Financial Aid, Impact, Words of Faith

collage of graphics related to May events

Among the lesser known observances of May 1 is “Decision Day.” For low-income students, this is more than a misnomer. Until the entire system changes, this higher education holiday should not be observed.

May 1 has multiple meanings:

  • In Europe and Scandinavia, this is a date to celebrate spring.
  • This is also International Worker’s Day, with protests and strikes to emphasize the value of labor and those who provide it.
  • Today is marked as A Day Without Immigrants, combining the labor movement and the call for immigration reform into a day in which some do not participate in the American economy in order illustrate the important contributions of our brothers and sisters born elsewhere.
  • And in high schools and at colleges this day is described as Decision Day, with proud announcements of students’ admission and enrollment decisions.

The phrase “Mayday” is also a distress signal, repeated three times in succession.  For our students at The Scholarship Foundation (and I know the same is true for many others) declaring that May 1 is Decision Day is irresponsible.  I’d rather we issued the distress signal than act as though our students’ admissions to college require only a “decision”, akin to which designer label to wear or what kind of coffee brewing technique is best.

As of today, Decision Day, only 38% of our completed applicants have financial aid awards from their schools.  What does that mean?  Declaring a decision today, in order to participate in the celebration, satisfy the guidance counselor’s desire to boast, or hear their names during assembly, low-income students must superficially commit with no way of knowing whether they will ever be able to attend.  Of course, actual May 1 commitments typically include a contingency if financial aid is needed and does not come through, but that is of little comfort in the face of the hoopla.  Decision Day is based upon an ancient time in which admissions was “need blind” (and need was fully met), and it continues as a homage to those students whose families can afford to pay the bill.

At the Scholarship Foundation, we advise students NOT to decide or commit until they have all the facts confirmed in writing.  We keep our award process open as long as possible while students wait to hear and wait to decide.  Last year, in July we had to turn away 77 students who were otherwise qualified and fully vetted but had not yet heard what financial aid they would receive from the schools to which they were admitted.  We ran out of money, not patience.

Calling today “Decision Day” is just about as outmoded as dancing around a Maypole, and far less picturesque.  Under current circumstances, it’s cruel and exclusionary and should be suspended until substantive changes make higher education truly accessible.
– Faith Sandler