Abetting hypocrisy: Financial aid policy exposes need for revisions

Earlier this year, Case Western Reserve University announced an interest in adopting a need-aware admissions policy to meet 100 percent of student financial need.

While it cannot be said whether the need-aware policy causes more harm than good, the goal to achieve 100 percent of need is laudable.

So why does a financial aid policy counteract this goal?

Hidden away in the FAQ section of the Office of University Financial Aid website is a statement: “any dependent undergraduate student who chooses to live off-campus for other than a documented medical reason will have his or her grant eligibility calculated on the basis of a commuter-level budget.”

The policy further elaborates that this difference amounts to $12,300 for the 2015-2016 academic year. The website doesn’t provide context for the value or why it is in place. I sought to obtain a statement from Financial Aid clarifying this. The responses are alarming.

A representative stated that should a student choose to live off campus they lose all grants. When pressed why this policy was adopted, they could not provide an answer; neither could another staff member.  Finally another representative told me that policy came from the Division of Student Affairs. The lack of any immediate explanation for the policy is concerning and exposes that Financial Aid has not educated their staff and the policy is in need of examination.

Inquiries to Student Affairs produced a transfer to the Office of University Housing, who stated that Financial Aid should have the answer. In total, five university officials were unable to provide an answer. The lack of knowledge about the policy is telling.

This writer investigated policies of 40 peer institutions. Thirty-one provided their policies. Of these, all but one treats the financial aid of students living off-campus exactly the same as if a student is living in a “standard” room. The sole exception, University of Chicago, adjusts a student’s financial aid package by a maximum of $3,000 to match the cost of off-campus housing. Based on these findings, the CWRU policy to indiscriminately penalize students has no precedent.

Past articles and interviews with university officials indicate it may have been designed to encourage students to live on campus after the Village at 115 was built and promote community. I recognize the intent, but condemn this policy as dated and contrary to CWRU’s mission to meet full financial need and protect fiscally vulnerable students. Instead, it mainly produces housing revenue.

Students not receiving grants are able to move off campus to reduce their financial burdens. Moving next year from an average on campus cost of approximately $11,000 to an off-campus apartment at $4,500 represents $6,500 saved. Students with grants greater than $12,300 are forced to pay $5,800 more, representing a $12,300 gap between these two demographics via a fiscally discriminatory policy.

The policy also ignores negative social effects: Rather than promoting campus inclusivity, it drives students apart based on where they can afford to live. For some students without grants, moving off-campus is their only option to afford their education, leaving grant-receiving friends behind.

Another facet is campus housing. Four years ago, guaranteed housing was touted. Today, it is nowhere to be seen on the housing or admissions site. While it was a relief when University Housing confirmed this policy, it’s concerning that it’s not well-advertised. Considering last spring the university attempted to remove all the inexpensive Property Management Apartments (PMAs) from room selection, the potential for this policy to rapidly change is imaginable; today not all PMAs are available.

If housing is no longer guaranteed, this policy will penalize grant-receiving students for having an unlucky lottery spot. When this scenario and Financial Aid policy were discussed with Board of Trustees members earlier this semester, it was met with surprise and dismay.

Of greatest concern is the sheer hypocrisy of this policy. It seeks to meet 100 percent of student need, but instead practices discriminatory fiscal policy.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

By eliminating this reprehensible policy, CWRU can become affordable for all. CWRU ought to consider pro-rating aid like University of Chicago. For example, a student receiving $12,300 in grants moving to a $4,500-nine-month lease could receive $6,150 in grants. This would allow the university to provide additional aid to another student while still providing the original student with some aid. The University could also develop the PMAs without harming students.

I implore CWRU to remove this policy, educate officials and consider alternative policies to achieve benefits for all parties and align with our peer institutions.

Rather than promoting obstruction and hypocrisy, let’s build a brighter future for CWRU.

Ryan Cleary is a fourth-year student.