Kurt Mitman | When a full ride isn’t enough

Sorry to be Kurt | Financial aid packages don’t count the full costs of attending college

· November 19, 2012, 1:40 am

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Kurt Mitman
Sorry to be Kurt

Penn leads the pack when it comes to financial aid — it is one of the few universities that still offer loan-free aid packages amid the greatest recession since the Depression.

However, Penn could do more to help its neediest students. As inequality continues to rise, Penn should lead the way to help equalize opportunities for students across all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Penn provides 340 students a “full ride,” as College freshman Tuong Hoang calls it. The financial aid package covers not only tuition, room and board, but also other expenses. The university budgets around $3,500 a year to cover books and personal expenses, which include phone, laundry and recreation.

But is the money really enough?

For some students, the opportunity cost of coming to college can be just as prohibitive as the explicit costs of paying tuition and room and board. These students work part-time jobs while in high school to help support their families. Coming to college makes it harder to contribute back home.

Engineering freshman Jesus Morales helps his mom and little brother “in those moments when they really need it.”

“The other week I had to pay the phone bill,” he said. “Now, I have nothing. I’m completely broke.”

When Morales got to campus, he applied for 20 work-study jobs and even a position at Wawa. But none of the positions could accommodate his demanding class schedule. His inability to secure a work-study job has prevented him from accessing $2,700 out of the $3,500 that Penn allocated for the year.

Morales thinks about his financial situation every day. “It really, really, really affects my performance in class,” he said.

How can Penn expect its neediest students — who may already have had fewer academic opportunities in high school — to succeed when they have to constantly worry about finances and divert their time from academics (and their social lives)?

Penn doesn’t keep track of how many students are actively supporting their families back home or how many turn down a “full ride” to support their families.

But even for those students who don’t need to send money back home, financial aid isn’t always enough.

University Director of Financial Aid Joel Carstens explained to me that they try to estimate “the nine-month cost of living in Philadelphia, to allow the flexibility of having some spending money.”

But Penn’s estimates often fall short.

Before her freshman year, College senior Taylor Hawes went to Target to buy items from the Penn’s recommended shopping list. “I felt like I couldn’t actually afford college,” she said, noting that the total cost of the items exceeded $2,000 (compared to the $2,284 Penn budgeted for the year).

“The sticker price is comprehensive. It covers most, but not all of your costs,” she added.

Penn’s allocation for personal expenses didn’t cut it either for College freshman Linzi Arndt, who comes from Florida.

“I had to find work right away to afford winter clothes,” she explained, adding that her job “definitely takes time away from studying.”

Carstens admits that “a job becomes paramount for our neediest students.” These jobs — which are included in all financial aid packages — do impact the learning experience.

Having to work is just one aspect in which these students miss out on the Penn experience. All five students I interviewed had annual family contributions under $500. They spoke about not being able to spend $10 to see things like the Glee Club show, or felt left out when their friends went to Bobby’s Burger Palace for dinner and they didn’t have the money to go.

Students on financial aid are incredibly thankful for what they receive from Penn. I think that Hawes put it best: “I would not be here if it was not for Penn financial aid, and for that I’m grateful.”

Meanwhile, Carstens and his office try their hardest to provide for students — within the current constraints of financial aid. But Penn needs to recognize that worrying about finances does have a real impact on its students.

If Penn is really committed to bringing the best students here, regardless of socioeconomic status — which it should be — it needs to make financial aid packages more generous. It shouldn’t be bankrolling lavish lifestyles, but it should provide enough for students to engage fully in academics and extracurricular activities at Penn.

Leaders, after all, are not complacent with their position. It’s time for Penn to step forward and commit fully to leveling the playing field.

Kurt Mitman is a sixth-year doctoral student from McLean, Va. His email address is kurt.mitman@gmail.com. Follow him @SorryToBeKurt. “Sorry To Be Kurt” usually appears every other Thursday.

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