Minority leaders discuss financial aid issues

Student leaders met with Penn's Director of Financial Aid to discuss possible solutions to their concerns

· February 2, 2014, 8:43 pm   ·  Updated February 11, 2014, 12:31 am

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Penn provides need-blind, no-loan, full financial aid to students in need. However, some minority students say they are slipping through the cracks.

Student leaders of minority organizations on campus discussed these issues with President Amy Gutmann, who they meet with each semester, in the fall. The students were concerned that while the standard financial aid formula works well in the majority of cases, for students who have individual extenuating circumstances — especially minority students — those resources may not be sufficient.

The students met with University Director of Financial Aid Joel Carstens, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs for Student Registration and Financial Services Michelle Brown-Nevers and Deputy University Registrar Janet Ansert, at Gutmann’s suggestion to come up with a plan to address their concerns.

“The sensitivity process and working with our frontline staff, that is [a topic] that we knew would be coming out of this and something that has already started to change,” Carstens said.

According to College sophomore Diana Cabrera, chair of the Latino Coalition, the student leaders and student financial services discussed options such as forming a student advisory board or designating a liaison in SFS to work with minority students.

Carstens said the creation of a student advisory board for SFS would likely occur closer to the end of the semester, and they will have to consider how a liaison might be integrated into that plan.

SFS already provides individual meetings for students who want to go over their personal cases, but Carstens said he intends to “escalate the discussion to make sure that we’re responding in the time frame that the students need the response.”

“It’s something that’s happening as we speak, so we’re just opening the door,” President Gutmann said.

Dawn Androphy, College junior and president of Lambda Alliance, said that some of the umbrella group’s constituents might face added challenges when it comes to financial aid because in some cases, parents may “refuse to acknowledge the student’s identity and won’t support them financially.”

She added that while these situations are not necessarily very frequent, for students such challenges “can be catastrophic for their lives.”

Gutmann said a variety of circumstances, where parents can but aren’t willing to contribute money toward their child’s education, are the “stickiest example” of the problems that these discussions aimed to address.

One College sophomore, who is of Brazilian descent and wished to remain anonymous, had this problem navigating Penn’s financial aid system.

Her parents divorced when she was barely a toddler, and by the time college rolled around, her father told her mother “that he didn’t want anything to do with me and my sisters when we turned 18,” she said.

She and her sisters live with their mother, whose income of about $30,000 a year qualifies her as low-income, but that was not how Penn saw it when they saw her father’s high salary. She said that Penn included their father’s child support payments when creating the financial aid package for her and her sister, even though they would stop receiving his support once they turned 18 during their freshman year.

This skewed view of their income level disqualified them from federal funding through the Pell Grant, which in turn knocked her and her sister out of the running for the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which covers the cost of undergraduate and select graduate school tuitions for minority students.

She and her sister sent in a lengthy appeal to Penn’s financial aid office, which was ultimately accepted.

Throughout this process, she has spoken over the phone and in person with financial aid officers, who she said have been very friendly and helpful. Her one recommendation is to allow students to make appointments with specific financial aid officers. “It’d be more helpful to have one person working with us instead of having to explain the financial situation over and over again,” she said.

Hyatt said that the meetings with administrators shed light on the extreme complexity of this issue but gave her confidence that they are aware of and committed to addressing the students’ concerns.

“I think at least in our constituents … people are more open to addressing [their financial situation] or talking about it,” Hyatt said. Now that she has more information to give back to her constituents, Hyatt said she has seen a rise in the general level of awareness of financial aid resources and a “shift in the nature of our conversations.”

Hyatt said the next step in her mind is to follow up with SFS to check in on the progress because “that’s where the most change can happen,” she said.

Although it is difficult to lay out one comprehensive plan addressing all unique situations, Carstens said, “In our dialogue, what was important to us with the students is making sure that students know we’re here to help and that we’re always going to be here to help whether that’s on an individual basis or on a group basis.”

Correction: This story was updated to clarify that the anonymous sophomore quoted in the article is not part of the LGBTQ community.

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