Penn’s financial aid website claims that the University “commits to meeting full demonstrated need for four years” — but that hasn’t been the experience of all students at Penn.
A group of seven students dissatisfied with their financial aid packages and Student Registration and Financial Services’ treatment of their financial situations are compiling their stories anonymously and planning to collectively send them to Senior University Director of Financial Aid Elaine Papas-Varas later this semester.
The students’ discomfort stems from what they see as a lack of transparency and consistency during the process of securing their financial aid packages. Many students reported hearing different information from various financial advisors and faced prolonged negotiations to ensure more aid. Some find providing extensive documentation to SFS difficult or invasive.
“There are a lot of middle-class students who aren’t considered low income, but we have other problems too,” said College sophomore Danielle*, the student who is organizing the collective letter to SFS. Danielle, like others interviewed for this article, requested anonymity to speak candidly about their personal finances. “The thing that gets us is that on the website they say that they will meet 100 percent demonstrated need, but they don’t tell you the specifics of that until you’re accepted and you see what you have to pay and you try to fight for a better package.”
Danielle found that her financial aid package didn’t accommodate her after her family suffered financial setbacks.
“For my family personally — my parents went bankrupt twice, they have like seven credit cards they maxed out on because they were paying for debts, and those are debts that SFS doesn’t consider as debts,” Danielle said. She was unsure what methods SFS used to evaluate her family’s situation.
“They never told me. They have their own standards of what can be considered a debt and what can’t be,” Danielle said. “For that, I guess they’re just gonna assume they were spending on random things. But no, they were paying for things like the home that we lived in, that we were kind of stuck in for awhile. And it wasn’t even a home, it was like an apartment that we just couldn’t pay for. And now it’s foreclosed.”
This year, Danielle is living on 45th Street and did not purchase a meal plan. Although her work-study job covers her rent, she found that she did not have enough left over to buy food. She began eating only one meal a day, lost 25 pounds and ended up applying for food stamps.
She did find relief from on-campus organizations like Student Intervention Services, PennCAP, Greenfield Intercultural Center and La Casa Latina. They provided meal vouchers and encouraged her to appeal her financial aid through the reevaluation process.
“It’s out of their own time,” she said of the students who assisted her. “It’s not because this what administration is telling them to do, it’s because they see the administration isn’t helping [students], so they want to do it for them.”
Danielle was disillusioned by the conflicting messages she received from the SFS website and SFS advisors. Even within the SFS advising system, she found inconsistent information.
“One time I called and asked if I had to take out any more [money], they said no,” she recounted. “Next time I came in, they said I had to take out another [payment] or else I would be put on registration hold and couldn’t attend school next semester.”
She also reported a back-and-forth exchange with an SFS advisor that prompted her to reevaluate her financial aid package.
“He would just bring up another way to say ‘ask your parents for money’ and I would just bring up another way to say that I couldn’t. The end of that conversation was just ‘fill out a reevaluation form.’”
Danielle said she did fill out a reevaluation form, which was sponsored by a student group on campus, and said she received a greater financial aid package. She believes the culture of SFS is changing — albeit slowly.
“They have a new director. She wants to make a change about [SFS] which I think is great, but a lot of the changes they want to do up top aren’t going down to the people who are handling the students,” she said.
After Danielle’s parents divorced, she had to prove that they had separated on her financial aid forms. She felt that the level of documentation required was invasive — she had to fill out forms about details of her parents’ divorce that she didn’t know herself, and certainly didn’t want to provide to an administration, she said.
Danielle is speaking up because she believes many students are reluctant to voice concerns about their financial aid situations. “There’s a lot of students here who aren’t speaking up because they’re afraid, maybe ashamed, to say anything,” she said.
College sophomore Hannah*, another student, also said her family falls in the “awkward” middle-income bracket: not low-income, but not able to afford tuition either.
“We barely were able to make tuition because she [Hannah’s mother] had to take out of her savings for retirement in order to pay for my tuition,” she said. “We still had to take out a loan. And despite all of that we’re still walking on eggshells.”
Like Danielle, Hannah was frustrated by the process of document verification and the limited information it can convey.
“I believe that SFS does a very thorough investigation, so they’re working off the information you provide. But [the Free Application for Federal Student Aid] and [College Scholarship Service Profile] — which is pretty stupid in itself, you have to pay to get financial aid — that doesn’t paint the full picture. For example, there might be cases of parents who were never married.”
Because there was no documentation of Hannah’s mother’s relationship to her father, her mother’s co-workers had to write letters to SFS to prove that she was a single parent.
Another student at Penn, College junior Liz*, found a discrepancy between the financial aid policy advertised on the website compared to her reality.
When she received her financial aid package, Liz and her mother realized that they wouldn’t be able to afford the parent contribution that they were supposed to pay, so they resorted to finding the money in other places.
“When I was a freshman I got my financial aid package and I saw my parents couldn’t afford it without getting loans, and I thought it was weird,” she said, “but I really wanted to go to Penn — I was in love with Penn — so I convinced my dad that it was fine and that we’d make it work.”
After she was accepted to Penn through the Early Decision program, her dad lost his job, which strained the family’s financial situation. Their financial aid package was further complicated by the policy for scholarships, which the student did not know until she came to Penn.
“I had a lot of scholarships, but then I found out that my scholarships couldn’t apply to my parent contribution, they only got rid of my work-study,” she recalled. “So then I couldn’t find a job freshman year. Because they don’t really advertise how outside scholarships work too much to freshmen.”
After Liz’s dad lost his job, she said her financial aid package adjusted to reflect the change. However, she still couldn’t afford to pay for school.
“When he lost his job and they lowered it a bit, but not that much — only by $1,700. My financial aid is really good compared to a lot of people and they’re giving me a lot of money and I appreciate that. But I still can’t afford it — if the cost of attendance is way more than what my parents make together, I don’t understand how you expect me to pay $7000 out of the blue.”
Liz is covering the parent contribution portion of her tuition by withdrawing loans.
“I would always end up crying because I felt so hopeless,” she said. “And I know a lot of people have to take out loans and I don’t have a problem with loans — it’s just there was this no-loan policy. And I want to go to med school, so I’m going to have to take out a lot of loans then. And my parents don’t help me with my cost of attendance at all.”
Even though Liz’s sister started as a freshman in college this year, her financial aid package was initially identical to last year’s, she said. However, she is waiting to fill out a re-evaluation form for financial aid, because her dad recently became jobless and she is waiting until he is recognized as unemployed. She was hesitant to do it while her father was on strike with a worker’s union, because he was receiving a stipend of $400 per week, she said.
“I don’t know what number to put as his income and that’s why I’m waiting, because we have to have a really good explanation for why our expenses are higher than what we make per year,” she said. “My parents aren’t together and I’m kind of estranged from my dad so talking to him about money is really frustrating for me.”
For Liz, the system of income bracketing for levels of financial aid and the Penn Student Insurance Plan was also confusing.
“Because my dad hasn’t had benefits for a while, I have to get the Penn Insurance and it’s so expensive,” she said. “I already can’t afford to pay my base price and they give me the half-grant, but I just don’t understand how these brackets work. Am I just right above the bracket?”
Liz originally didn’t receive any grant money, but negotiated for a half-grant at SFS, which means that she will only have to pay for one half of the insurance policy price herself.
“I’m excited about that, however I still have to pay $2,500 before Nov. 1, which is probably going to end up being loans,” she said.
Her finances have dwindled to the point where she has not had enough money to buy food.
“I struggle to eat a lot,” she said. “I’ve been eating so many processed foods this year because I’m on no meal plan at all, whereas last year I was on a smaller meal plan.”
Liz acknowledged that living on campus was not the cheapest housing option, but said that she thought their financial aid would increase because her sister was entering college. The change in financial aid was much less significant than she anticipated.
“This summer I knew I was going to struggle after I saw my financial aid so I applied for food stamps, which are really helpful but they’re only a supplement and technically you’re supposed to work 20 hours a week to keep them,” she said. “I’m working 10 now, I’m going to start working 20.”
While enrolled at Penn, students cannot work more than 20 hours a week or have more than two jobs. Students on food stamps cannot work any more or less than exactly 20 hours each week.
Liz acknowledged that some SFS policies may be changing under the new administration. But she was hesitant to praise them.
“I know there’s going to be a lot of changes, and when I went to ask about SFS to ask about this grant for my health insurance, they were like ‘Oh, I don’t know, because all the policies are changing right now.’ I’m excited for these changes, but I’m apprehensive because what if I’m right above the bracket again?”
Elaine Papas-Varas, senior university director of financial aid since last March, said that transparency was a priority for SFS.
“The intention and the goal for SFS is for all students to come in and have a positive experience,” she said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that every student is going to have positive, good news. But every student will have the truth and every student will have a clear explanation of what’s happening in their files.”
Hannah believes that SFS employees are friendly — but sometimes lack complete understanding of students’ situations.
“They’re very friendly people — I don’t want to demonize them or anything — but I feel like they really got to understand that we want to come here,” she said. “That’s the only reason why we’re pressing so hard ... Penn is not only Ivy League, it’s a second home. They really just gotta understand that. It’s not like, ‘oh, if it’s too much, why don’t you just leave?’ You brought us here for a reason. We chose to be here for a reason.”
*Names have been changed.