The Real Impact of High Tuition: You Are Not a Loan
The red patch is more than just a fashion statement. The square of felt that American University students wear symbolizes their protest against tuition increases.
Students at AU and across campuses in the U.S. wear the patch as a symbol of solidarity with a student movement in Quebec that protested high turition and won. According to analysis from credit bureau Experian, 40 million Americans have student loans.
Tution hikes can hurt students like freshman Mattison Johnson. Johnson says she was supposed to receive a $4,000 grant, a merit scholarship, subsidized and unsubsidized federal loans for $3,400 per semester and a $3,000 work study job to help cover her tuition. But by the time she accepted the offer to attend AU, the school informed her that she had lost her grant and work study, as well as $2,000 from her combined federal loans combined, because she no longer qualified for the aid.
“Even though I could reapply next year, for this year I’m done so they can’t award me anything else,” Johnson said.
She didn’t know why the school took her aid away, and the financial aid office couldn’t seem to give Johnson a clear answer.
“All they kept saying was that ‘After reviewing your file we decided your family makes enough money to cover it,’” Johnson said.
According to AU’s website, 71 percent of scholarship awards in 2013-2014 were need-based. To determine eligibility for grants, the University reviews information from a financial aid profile and considers factors such as younger siblings attending private school, home equity and single-parent families. In order to be eligible for financial aid, students must follow a formula: Cost of Attendance minus Expected Family Contribution equals Need.
Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is the money that a university can reasonably expect students and their families to contribute. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) uses formulas to determine students’ EFC from income, interest, benefits and savings. It also considers taxes, number of household members currently attending college, age of parents, marital status of parents, employment of parents, income from retirement and consumer debt. Changes in familial circumstances, such as employment status, can affect the amount of financial aid a student receives.
At the time that Johnson learned AU was taking away her aid, both her mother and stepfather were unemployed. She sent an email to the financial aid office explaining the changes in circumstances. She also attached tax forms to prove that her family was financially eligible, but did not receive a quick reply.
After a week without a response, she says she tried calling the financial aid office, but the voicemail box was full.
She finally received an email offering condolences for her circumstances, but explaining that she appealed too late. Her new financial situation would be taken into consideration the following year, as the University had already redistributed all the financial aid money. Johnson believes that she did not appeal too late, but that the financial aid office took too long to get back to her, and thus ran out of money before they had the time to consider her appeal.
She appealed again and received the same response.
The AU website also states that an appeal for a change in income requires submission of a letter that requests aid to be reconsidered, a detailed description of the situation surrounding loss of household income, an income reduction worksheet, a federal verification worksheet, tax returns included with W2 forms, schedules signed by the student and an employer letter that confirms the last date of employment. In some cases, documentation of severance and unemployment benefits may be necessary.
Johnson and her mother believe that the cuts in her financial aid had to do with information financial aid counselors advised her to include earlier last year. When she turned 18, her biological father stopped contributing to her education.
“They told us that we should include my dad’s income in applying for financial aid even if he wasn’t going to be giving us any money,” Johnson said. “We were like, ‘That’s kind of weird, are you sure about that?’ and they said ‘It’s just for informational purposes, it has nothing to do with you financial aid.’”
Only after his income was included did her financial aid get cut.
“We’re not sure because they didn’t give us a reason, but we were pretty sure they included his income and that’s why they maybe took it back, because we didn’t add it in until later,” Johnson said.
Johnson and her family now have $30,000 in loans for the 2014-2015 academic year. She wishes that she had researched more before accepting her offer to AU.
AU’s communications office did not respond to requests for comment.
Johnson is not alone. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, in 2012, 75 percent of students who graduated from private universities had loans averaging $32,300. Like Johnson, some students have become fed up with the student loan model that is causing them to either drop out, burn out or graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
Education Not Debt (END), is a coalition of prominent campus organizations including CASJ, the Roosevelt Institute, Fossil Free AU and Student Government. This semester, it pushed for a tuition freeze that ultimately failed. Its end goal is to eradicate student debt; its symbol is a red patch.
The collaboration of many seemingly unrelated groups may appear unusual. For example, CASJ is a spiritually-oriented social justice collective, and Fossil Free has historically promoted divestment from fossil fuels. But both are dedicated to empowering student voices.
“If we work together, that’s how we win,” said Rebecca Wolf, a junior and organizer for both END and Fossil Free. Wolf says that many students felt like there was a lack of solidarity between the board of trustees and the students.
“They’re not taking action on things that students want, like divestment, like a tuition freeze,” Wolf said.
But according to an email distributed to the AU community from board of trustees chairman Jeffrey Sine, the administration considers both budget committee recommendations and student opinions when designing the budget.
“Their recommendations clearly aimed for the lowest possible tuition increase, set realistic revenue projections, and maintained investment in important priorities,” he wrote, adding that student “advocacy held great weight in considering this budget plan.”
“We appreciate the spirited debate that yielded recommendations reflecting balance of a wide variety of interests and concerns, yet keep us moving forward,” Sine wrote in the email.
But END isn’t ready to accept the board’s proposed 3 percent tuition increase, one of the lowest raises in AU’s recent history. Members sent letters to provosts, gathered outside of budget committee meetings and attended tuition hike meetings and plan to keep the organization alive as long as needed.
“We really do want to make a long term movement out of this,” said Rachel Ussery, a freshman and an organizer for END. “We definitely plan to keep going afterwards, no matter what happens.”