Like many students at Case Western Reserve University, financial aid was a major component in my college decision. As the son of musicians—the classical kind, not the high-dollar studio-touring kind—I’m not exactly made of money. Selecting what university I would attend always partially hinged on what they would be able to offer aside from the loans I already knew I was going to be taking out.
So when I received my original package from CWRU, I was floored by how accommodating their promise of meeting demonstrated aid appeared to be. They managed to even top what The Ohio State University offered, despite the fact that I got a tuition benefit there. Going to one of the best schools in the midwest was actually an affordable option, and the roadmap from freshman to senior year seemed surprisingly clear.
Unfortunately, things have been considerably less smooth for me, and other people I know, than I had hoped. It seems that since that nice introduction to CWRU’s financial aid practices, I’ve run into more and more issues. The emails I get from the Office of Financial Aid make less and less sense, and sometimes seem to indicate a lack of preparedness and understanding.
Take, for example, an email I got last year. It asked about a problem they had found with my FAFSA. They said I had claimed too much income and the numbers weren’t adding up.
Surprised, I sent the email along to my mom, who moonlights as our in-house accountant. She almost immediately realized they had made a mistake, and pinpointed the exact line in the tax code demonstrating what she did and why she was allowed to do it. She promptly replied to the email to explain what she did, and that seemed to be the end of that.
Flash forward a month. It’s the day before the financial aid form deadline and I get an email from the office saying I have not completed my forms, even though the page clearly says I have. But more importantly, if I don’t resolve the issue, then they will not consider me for disbursement in 2019-2020.
So, I dive right back into the email chain and ask if it was sent as a mistake. Turns out, it wasn’t, but not because I’m missing a form. The problem is that when they emailed about the FAFSA issue, my mom was the one who replied, and not me. They needed me to reply and admit that we had claimed a certain amount of money or something, but did not make that explicitly clear from the initial email. Only after I responded saying “Okay yeah, I did that I guess” did they determine my forms to be completed. For over a month, they waited to tell me they required an arbitrary “Yes” from me specifically in order to process my application.
This is a case where it all worked out in the end. But I know of people who have had their awards entirely disappear in large amounts with very little explanation, even after already making housing decisions and moving in. I know people who consulted with the office and received misleading information regarding how their grants are affected by housing. In one case, it factored into someone’s decision to drop out and avoid taking on a yearly cost that would pretty much bankrupt their family.
Now, none of this is to say that the office is demonstrating overt, malicious intent. Like I said, the fact is that CWRU tends to put a concerted effort into making an education here affordable.
What I want to know is why they seem to hinge this effort on incompetency and latent issues in their original disbursement calculations? Understanding that enrollment has gone up and the university’s student makeup and mission is ever-changing, too often have I heard a complaint about financial aid that left me only able to say “Wow, that’s actually ridiculous.”
Remember that hassle with the email chain from last year? Well, I recently got another email from the office … about the exact same issue. The tone of my mom’s reply was one that I know too well from annoying her in high school. Not derogatory, not berating, but definitely not happy either.
Last year, I was willing to pin the issue on a clerical error, and it could well be that’s the case this year, too. But that doesn’t change the fact that, when confronted with the tax provision, the person with whom my mother communicated made a remark to the tune of: “That’s the IRS’ problem, not mine.”
To me, it 100 percent is their problem. As smart and experienced as my mom is, she shouldn’t be spelling out relatively well-known tax laws to the people determining the money I receive in order to attend CWRU. Especially since it’s a law that benefits students who work while also going to school; they should be letting us know we can even take advantage of it. Going to a private institution is expensive, and I need all the help I can get.
This is also why it’s absurd that I’ve heard any stories at all of people having their aid modified without a great explanation as to why. There could well be a perfectly good reason for why the school made that decision, but that reason needs to be made explicitly clear to whomever it affects. If it’s an issue with the way their income is declared, tell them. If it has to do with some windfall they received, tell them.
What should never occur is this feeling that, at any moment, your means of attending CWRU could suddenly diminish. Right now, receiving vague emails regarding “problems” with my financial aid only exacerbates the anxieties brought on doing college amidst coronavirus. I’m still paying for an apartment I can’t live in, I’ve lost income from not being able to do work remotely and I just found out I don’t qualify for a relief check from the government.
And yet, I’m still in a better place than a lot of other kids at CWRU, and I am very fortunate for that. If there are money issues for next year, I could probably regroup and figure something out. For others, scares regarding their financial aid or unexpected reductions could be what ultimately tanks their plans beyond this semester.
Now, more than ever, we need to be raising the bar and setting a good example for other prestigious institutions. Low-context emails and poorly-explained changes to grant parameters certainly do not fit within that standard.
I will admit, it would be unreasonable for me to expect this office to run perfectly, with no miscommunications ever. However, it is not unreasonable to expect a university as wealthy as ours to pair that money with competency.