opinion_column01

“I’m sorry. I understand you’re frustrated, but it’s the policy,” said the financial aid advisor at Student Financial Services. Finally, well into my fourth year at Penn, I made the call to better understand my financial aid package.

To students who are still searching and to the fortunate few who receive outside scholarships, I want to share a lesson I learned from this phone call: Don’t apply to that scholarship.

Penn is one of the many universities that advertise their generous financial aid to attract high-performing, low-income students. Indeed, Penn’s financial aid is very generous. The average financial aid package awarded to freshmen in 2015 was $48,605. This is one of the main reasons I applied to Penn. I thought Penn would do everything in its power to make Penn work for me.

Where Penn’s generosity stops is in the way it divides family contribution into two categories: student contribution and parent contribution. Student contribution includes summer savings, work-study and student assets. Parent contribution is calculated based on the parents’ income and assets and equals the amount that the parents are responsible for.

As a low-income student, I looked into outside scholarships to meet my family’s contribution. In this call, I learned that Penn uses outside scholarships to reduce student contribution. But if your scholarship exceeds student contribution, the school subtracts the excess from its grant. The real catch is no matter how much scholarship you receive, your parents’ contribution remains unchanged.

However, for low-income students, dividing the responsibility of family contribution between the student and the parents is far removed from the lived experiences of the student and the family. The reality is — when your family is poor, you are all poor together and you all survive together. There’s no “my savings” or “my parents’ savings.” It’s “our money” and “I’m-going-to-save-so-I-can-lend-my-parents-money-when-they-need-it money.” All resources are shared.

But you can only do so much to make your education affordable when your school’s policy does not reflect this reality. Unknown to most of my friends, I currently attend Penn on three outside scholarships. The sum of the scholarships is enough to cover my contribution and my parents’ contribution. Yet, because of Penn’s policy, my second and third scholarships do not make things any easier for my family than my first.

“I’ve been working here for more than 20 years. I’ve heard it all. It’s the policy. If your financial aid is not working for you, you can submit a request for re-evaluation of your aid.”

I try to explain what it would mean for my family if outside scholarships could cover my parents’ contribution, how I wouldn’t have to take out loans if the policy were different. In a recent DP article, another student similarly had to take out loans to cover her parents’ contribution because of Penn’s policy. But my plea goes nowhere. Apparently, for more than decades, it’s been the policy to separate students’ contribution from their parents’. But this answer is unsatisfactory.

Even if I submit a request for aid re-evaluation and my financial aid is readjusted, it still does not address the root issue, which is that the policy is set up to minimize the financial aid the school already committed to providing. This case-by-case approach only provides relief to students with the agency, time or knowledge of the system to request for re-evaluation.

Through this policy, Penn reduces its own commitment at the expense of burdening my family more. Scholarships are not meant to take the burden off the university. They are given to students so that they can afford their education.

I beg SRFS to rethink the way it treats student and family contributions in financial aid packages. Penn says it has made the commitment to meet 100 percent of students’ demonstrated need. But this commitment falls short by capping outside scholarships to student contribution. Instead, Penn must come up with a new way to meet the commitment they made to its students.

If the policy doesn’t change, the message is clear: You will never receive enough outside scholarship money to reduce the burden that falls on your parents. The burden that falls on your parents will fall back on you, and you will have to look into working multiple jobs, cutting spending and taking out loans to make ends meet.

So, students, save yourselves the time and don’t apply to that scholarship. Instead, give other students at institutions with more supportive policies the chance to reduce their families’ financial burdens.

Let it not be pocketed by Penn.

IAN JEONG is a senior in the Nursing School. His email address is jeonge@nursing.upenn.edu

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