Summer financial aid changes limit student opportunities

As a result of new SFS practices, at least 28 students have withdrawn from studying abroad this summer

· April 29, 2014, 10:17 pm   ·  Updated May 2, 2014, 5:52 pm

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Some students cannot afford to participate in Penn’s summer programs this year as a result of changes in Student Financial Services' summer aid practices.

New SFS practices have led to fewer grants to students. As a result, many students — at least 28 already — have withdrawn from studying abroad with Penn this summer, and enrollment in Penn Summer Abroad programs is currently down by 18 percent from last year.

Now, summer abroad coordinators are afraid these practices could result in major changes — programs could move away from need-blind admissions and some of them are in danger of not running at all.

This poses a unique challenge for the University. Penn is the only Ivy League school with an aid program that offers summer grants to undergraduates taking summer courses or studying abroad, Director of Financial Aid Joel Carstens said.

“The intention of how we’re distributing aid is to get as much as possible to as many students as possible,” Carstens said. “We want to ensure that as many students that can be supported by Penn will be.”

Changes to the budget

This summer, only students who are “high need” will have the opportunity to receive some grants, while all other students will receive only loans.

A student is determined as “high need” for summer aid if his or her parents earn fewer than $60,000 per year and their “parental contribution” — how much parents are expected to pay — is $4,500 or under.

This practice stems from SFS spending over its budget for summer financial aid for many years, said an SFS assistant director who wished to remain anonymous. The department is still feeling the effects of the recession, he said.

Although SFS’practices have changed, its policies have not. Penn’s “all grants no loans” policy states that SFS will provide grants to families for the amount of tuition that families cannot afford to payinstead of making families take out loans to cover the cost. However, this policy only applies for eight semesters. For summer programs, loans can — and often are — given out.

The change is that now the number of loans provided to students for summer programs is on the rise, and the number of grants offered is falling.

Since Penn is required to meet all need during the school year with grants, this also limits the amount of money available for summer financial aid. With the goals of the PennCompact 2020 put forward, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dennis DeTurck said, “We’re now admitting students from more diverse backgrounds, which creates an increased financial burden during the school year.”

Adjusting for inflation, the cost of tuition has gone down during the past 10 years, while University costs have risen. Part of the University’s increased expenses has been balanced out by the Making History Campaign, but the campaign hasn’t been able to make up for it all, DeTurck said.

“The pressure on the budget has increased,” DeTurck explained. “Something had to give, and summer aid was it.”

A decrease in the number of grants awarded to students could have a significant effect on academic courses offered over the summer.

“If some students are dropping classes, that can affect our ability to offer classes, so it could affect other students as well,” DeTurck said. “And students are worrying whether they have aid late in the game. If they can’t commit to an alternative, they could be closed out of other things.”

Abroad without aid

Thechange in the number of grants offered has already impacted Penn’s summer abroad programs, the least expensive of which is a 15-daytrip to South Africa, which costs $4,789 in tuition and fees, with a suggested minimum “additional expenses” of $3,410, according to the Penn Abroad website.

“We’ve seen it in the last couple of weeks,” said Kathryn McMahon, director of the Penn-In-Tours, France program, which brings 32 to 34 Penn studentsto France for six weeks each summer. “It’s clear that they’re not giving grants ... Now well qualified students are unable to go on the program.”

Nine students have withdrawn from this summer’s Tours program due to their financial aid packages, compared to zero or one student withdrawing for financial aid concerns in past years, McMahon said.

McMahon said that students had written emails expressing how disappointed they were that they wouldn’t be able to attend. “We didn’t know what to tell students ... It’s hard because those financial aid students haven’t had these opportunities in the past,” McMahon said. “This is saddening.”

The Tours program has faced additional stress because it has been unable to fill the spots lost by the students who withdrew, even though it received around 70 applications for 35 spots and put many students on a wait-list for the program.

McMahon said that the program could be significantly changed in future years, and might need stop accepting students on a need-blindbasis.

“I don’t see how we can if financial aid is decided so late and the policy stays the same,” she said. If the program continues to be smaller than it has been in the past, students might also have fewer opportunities for the historic visits, wine tastings and other extracurriculars that are a part of the program.

“We are running the risk that the ‘internationalization’ [becomes] a social and economic privilege, not a mission for the entire collectivity of our students,” Fabio Finotti, director of Penn-in-Venice, said in an email.

Last year, the Venice program had 39 students, while this year there are only 29 currently enrolled. Many students didn’t apply because of the new financial aid practice, Finotti said, and approximately six or seven dropped out after admission.

13 of the 55 initially accepted students to the Penn-in-Madrid program declined to attend this summer, repeatedly mentioning financial aid packages as the reason they needed to withdraw, program director Ignacio Lopez said in an email. The program to Buenos Aires has also seen multiple students decline due to financial reasons, he added.

Carol Muller, the program coordinator of Penn-in-Grahamstown, which has brought between nine and 13 students to a 10-day long festival in South Africa at the end of June, following a two-week long online course on South African music and culture, said the experience is transformative.

After the 10-day festival, students spend two days traveling through a local township with a community guide. Last year, one of the stops was at the house of a woman who raises abandoned children, taking in new ones when they leave — a sight that brought tears to the eyes of the Penn students.

Muller, whose program draws in many Penn students from diverse backgrounds like the Caribbean, Africa and Beijing, said her students have been particularly affected by changes to financial aid.

Although more students have registered for the class than have in previous years, Muller said her students don’t have the financial support to come. If she is unable to enroll more students, the program will not have enough money to run this summer.

Academic aid considerations

Thisyear’s summer aid practice follows a change in SFS practices last summer that required students to meet criteria for “academic need” in addition to financial need in order to receive grants for summer programs. Financial aid officers were explicitly told not to tell students about the change, the SFS assistant director said, because it would “confuse students.”

“That was always strange to me, because I thought not telling students would just confuse them more,” he said. “They would ask us why they didn’t get the grants they thought they would and we weren’t supposed to say anything, and then they would ask their academic advisors, who wouldn’t know. The information wasn’t published anywhere, so students just got the run around.”

Some students who had received grants over previous summers expected that 2013 would be similar, the assistant director said, but they didn’t find out that they would receive loans instead of grants until after the add-drop period for the class. “Then suddenly they were on the hook for several thousand dollars,” he said.

With the change, many students who had previously been on financial aid no longer met the criteria, including some students with families in the lowest income brackets.

SFS would calculate the grant money a student would receive, and then academic advisors in each applicant’s respective school would evaluate academic need. If academic need was met, students would receive their grants, which families do not pay back to the University. If the academic standards were not met, even if SFS determined they needed grants financially, students would receive loans instead, which they need to pay back to the University over time, the assistant director said.

“The relevance of academic need was not something that we wanted students to be going back and forth between advising and SFS [about],” Carstens said. “That’s not a dynamic a student should be in ... Students are getting caught in the gears of machinery at that point.”

SFS is no longer considering academic need for summer financial aid applicants — only if the student is “high need.”

“I think last year’s fiasco was a wake up call,” the assistant director said. “Now we’re headed in a much better direction in terms of impact on the highest need students.”

Despite the changes in financial aid practices this summer, program directors and University administrators understand that the money for summer aid just isn’t available.

“Penn has the funds that they have, and thinking through summer programs hasn’t been at the forefront of the plan ... I think there are unforeseen consequences,” Muller said. “This is a good moment to reflect and to say, ‘Well we stand good here, this is what the limitations are, now we need to figure out how to solve this problem.’”

On the website for Muller’s program, big red letters flash across the top of the page: “Penn-in-Grahamstown is currently still accepting applications for Summer 2014.”

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