Recently, our staff worked with a student who had graduated from a north county high school in 2017 with a 4.0 GPA. First in her family to go to college and first to leave home, she completed her first year of college with a 2.8. Her Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), the result of a federally determined formula to assess what a family can contribute to a student’s educational costs, was $14. In August, we struggled with her to understand why her school had cut her financial aid and left her with a gap too large for her to return to campus for her sophomore year. The process of inquiry and discussion revealed enough “unpublished fine print” to feel we were walking with her through a hall of mirrors, and to result in renaming the institution Kafkaesque Flagship University (KFU).
First-time freshmen often get letters that start with a resounding, “Congratulations”, followed by a description of all the state, federal, and institutional aid the student will receive. Often these letters fall short on clarity or transparency, focusing on what the student has been awarded and not what funding the student must find somewhere else or try to borrow at great cost in order to remain enrolled. I’ve rewritten the introductory paragraphs for KFU’s award letter, based on what we’ve learned.
Congratulations on your admission to KFU! We want you to know that reading the fine print is not enough. Doing all that you are told to do won’t cut it. And quite obviously it’s not enough to absolutely need the funds we’ve awarded you in order to remain enrolled.
If you are a student on financial aid at Kafkaesque Flagship University (KFU), you will also have to:
Accept that we will only fund up to 50% of your need and that the actual level will vary to an unknown degree from year to year based upon total dollars available and students qualifying;
Guess at the academic standards to be imposed on your need-based scholarships, including not just GPA but performance in certain courses (none of which will be explained or defined for you and all of which may change); and,
Find additional funding in the weeks between the time you are informed of the cuts that KFU will make and the time you are expected on campus.
If your family has no financial resources to contribute (your Estimated Family Contribution or EFC is $0), and you do not live close enough to campus to commute, you may find yourself unable to return after a semester or two. Don’t worry, we’ll be glad to give you the transcript you will need to transfer to another school once your bill is repaid in full.
You must have family wealth to attend KFU, a publicly funded state university. At current maximums, you are not eligible to borrow enough to fill the gap between the cost of attending our school and all the aid awarded you.
KFU Division of Enrollment Management
Policy is not always legislated. Sometimes it is practiced outside the public eye. Students and those who care about educational equity must ask many questions, until there’s enough truth told to create change.
Here’s a starter kit of questions to ask, whether you are a student exploring options or a donor deciding where your dollars will have the greatest impact:
- What percentage of undergraduate students qualify for Pell Grants? Pell Grants are federal need-based grants and, like Free and Reduced Lunch at K-12, the best indicator of the presence and proportion of low-income students.
- How much student financial need is met (with combined federal, state, and institutional funds)?
- What is the average annual borrowing of students with financial need?
- Do you reduce or withdraw institutional aid if a student secures private scholarships? This practice is called “displacement” and effectively penalizes a student for raising funds to fill the gap.
- Do you publish your policies on aid displacement?
- Do you inform students of performance expectations that will affect their need-based aid?
While I can’t explain the reasoning behind KFU’s hall of mirrors, I am happy to talk with you about how these practices affect our students and students like them each and every day. Give me a call, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
– Faith Sandler