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Credit: Priscilla des Gachons

Hip-hop singer Casey Bridgeford was living off of food stamps in Indianapolis when he decided to go back to school 12 years ago. Three years of community college and two jobs later, he was admitted to Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies. Little did he know that he would have to sell water bottles on the streets of Delaware and take out $30,000 in loans to cover his tuition bill.

Bridgeford’s financial troubles, he said, stem in part from the differences between financial aid for LPS and traditional undergraduate students. Along with those in the Accelerated Program in the School of Nursing, LPS students are considered untraditional undergraduates and as such are not included in Penn’s no-loan, all-grant financial aid program.

Second, they are not eligible for most of the University’s named scholarships, although LPS has a limited number of scholarships that are exclusively for the benefit of its students. Third, like graduate students in the School of Arts and Sciences, LPS students receive their financial aid from the budget of their home school, rather than from a general financial aid pool like traditional undergraduates.

“Every LPS student by statute is excluded from the no-loan financial aid policy,” Bridgeford said. “The way that it works is whatever package that you end up getting, you are expected to find a way to pay for the rest of it. Even after you take out every loan that you can take, you can still be liable for paying money for being able to attend Penn.”

Student Financial Service lists four financing and payment options for LPS students on its website: loans, direct loans, direct PLUS loans and the Penn monthly budget plan. 60 percent of LPS students take out these loans. But for some, it is still not enough.

“Springtime and summertime are some of the hardest times for LPS students. I have friends who are just trying to figure out how to eat,” Bridgeford said. With four children and a wife, Bridgeford himself struggles to pay rent and make enough money to put food on the table. “It affects our lives and our outlook for the future. We are underserved,” he said.

SFS works hard to make Penn more affordable for LPS students, it said. Compared to traditional undergraduate students, a much greater percentage of LPS students receive financial assistance from Student Financial Services. Ninety percent of LPS students receive financial aid, SFS Director of Financial Aid Joel Carstens said. This is compared to a 47 percent rate among traditional undergraduates.

SFS works closely with LPS students to help them afford a Penn education and SFS assistant directors often advocate on behalf of the LPS students they represent, said LPS Director of BA and BFA Programs Kathy Urban. Housing and dining allowances are included in all LPS financial aid packages for both part-time and full-time LPS students. Furthermore, LPS students are only asked to pay per-course tuition at roughly half the rate of traditional undergraduates.

There are a several reasons why LPS students are not included in Penn’s no-loan financial aid policy: First, LPS was established to serve working adults, so for most of its history, students have paid tuition via personal income or employer tuition, Executive Director of LPS Dave Bieber said.

Second, the intention of the all-grant initiative for traditional undergraduates was to enhance “both the affordability and attractiveness of Penn to this population in evaluating highly selective colleges and universities” and to “enhance our competitive profile in attracting talented and diverse students,” SFS said in a statement. These goals aligned more strongly with traditional undergraduates — who face a highly competitive application process and must choose between highly selective universities — than LPS undergraduates, SFS confirmed.

Some students say the distinction exists for other reasons.

“When I was talking to the financial aid lady she said the reason they charge LPS students to take out loans is because we’re getting a second chance to get an education,” said LPS junior Dede Dede, who worked his way through community college before coming to Penn. “LPS is pretty stingy. There’s no real disputing that fact.”

Dede said Penn should increase financial aid for LPS students for two reasons: LPS students often have to support families and spouses, and they have shorter work careers after graduating during which they can make enough money to pay back their debt.

Bridgeford, for his part, said financial aid policies should change because while most LPS students used to be part-time students and could therefore work while taking courses at Penn, more and more students are becoming full-time, a fact which Bieber confirmed. To date, half of students in LPS are full-time and half are part-time, although Bieber said these numbers change frequently.

Some LPS students hold an alternate view to Bridgeford and Dede.

“The list price of [traditional undergraduate] education ... is $60,000 per year plus. LPS students don’t pay nearly as much. Not even close,” LPS junior Connor Higgins said. “It’s a really good deal. It’s almost more advantageous to skip university for a few years and then go to a school like Penn through a program like LPS. I find my aid package at Penn to be mind-blowing, just really good.”

LPS students pay roughly half the traditional undergraduate sticker price for LPS courses. While Higgins will graduate with debt from the loans he’s taken out, he said that he appreciates Penn paying 60 to 70 percent of his tuition. The one caveat, he says, is that some students come to Penn with debt from community college, which makes their financial situation more difficult, especially because it can make them ineligible for some loans.

LPS financial aid does not only affect current students — it also affects prospective students.

“I am interested in LPS because I’m a psychology major and I know Penn has one of the best psych programs in the country,” said Mike, a prospective LPS student who currently studies at Philadelphia Community College. “The price affects my decision in a sense because I’m trying to find a scholarship or pay out of pocket.”

When asked whether or not he intended to take out loans, Mike said that he thought “Penn was a no-loan campus.”

LPS financial aid concerns extend beyond the no-loan financial policy.

“Communication between LPS, SFS and the students could definitely improve. Most SFS representatives are not familiar with the tuition reduction LPS students are entitled to, and we spend most of the semester with an ‘unpaid’ balance on our accounts,” LPS senior Anna Carapellotti wrote in an email. Urban said that this problem is typically the result of late tuition reduction requests, and SFS said that students are welcome to contact an SFS assistant director to discuss student account balances and how to resolve them.

When it comes to communication, LPS students say that they do not hear back from the financial office regarding their package in a reasonable time and therefore have difficulty with financial planning. While traditional undergraduates typically receive their financial aid packages upon admission, LPS students must wait additional weeks and typically do not receive their actual aid and loans until six weeks after the start of the year, according to the LPS Students Association.

“You don’t really have a clear picture of the financial obligation when you have your foot in the door. I was trying to make a decision between Georgetown, Columbia and a few others schools, and they told me this is what your aid is going to be, this is what your loans are going to be, but LPS didn’t do that,” Dede said. “You’re kind of making the decision in the dark.”

SFS says this is the natural result of the structure of the LPS program. “These students often change courses, or combine day and evening classes. This results in varied costs; the LPS student does not have the standard cost of attendance as a traditional undergrad,” SFS Director of Communications Marlene Bruno wrote in an email. Aid cannot be finalized until the drop period closes, Urban said.

Financial aid concerns are not unique to Penn. Students at Columbia’s School of General Studies, which is equivalent to Penn’s LPS, also face challenges caused by limited financial aid, the Columbia Spectator reported.

The disparity between LPS and traditional undergraduate financial aid is growing. While undergraduate and graduate students will directly benefit from the Making History Campaign fundraising, LPS students will not directly benefit. They will benefit indirectly, Carstens said, from the additional resources the School of Arts and Sciences will receive. Furthermore, while traditional undergraduate financial aid increased by 6 percent this year, LPS financial aid increased by 4 percent. LPS has no intention to change its financial aid policies, Urban said.

LPS concerns relate directly to academics as well. While traditional undergraduates can take courses in any school as a result of Penn’s One University policy, LPS students must pay in full for any classes not in LPS, outside their major or covered by tuition reduction requests, effectively limiting students with financial concerns from taking courses at Wharton or the Engineering school. LPS says that this policy is intended to help the LPS student body.

“Grant aid applies only to courses that are specifically required in order to complete the BA degree. Elective or optional classes taken outside LPS are not grant eligible. This policy exists to help us distribute grants as equitably as possible across our population of students,” Bieber said in a statement.

Yet, most LPS students agree that the benefits of LPS outweigh the harms.

“My favorite part of Penn is being part of the Penn community. I’ve been pretty well accepted based on my academic performance,” Dede said. “At the end of the day, I think that’s worth whatever price we’re paying.”

Correction: A previous version of this article indicated that Casey Bridgeford sold water bottles in Philadelphia when he actually sold water bottles in Delaware. Bridgeford was also in community college for 3 years, not 3 semesters, and never had a job with his community center, as the article previously indicated. The DP regrets the errrors.

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