When it comes to Penn's financial aid policy, administrators just can't seem to make up their mind.
Since December 2014, the University has rebranded its financial aid program using three different phrases: "no-loan," "all grant" and most recently, "grant-based." All three names, administrators said, describe the same thing: a policy that allots undergraduates an aid package free of loans through their eighth academic semester.
But to fifth-year students, who in recent days have become outraged at seeing thousands of dollars in loans included in their so-called "grant-based" packages, these name changes mask a policy that hasn't been enforced consistently or explained accurately by various financial aid officers.
“The grant-based financial aid program was created by President Gutmann in 2008,” Vice President of Finance and Treasurer MaryFrances McCourt said in emailed statement sent to Penn students on July 24. “Since 2008, the policy has consisted of grant aid combined with work-study for a total of eight undergraduate academic semesters.”
This eight-semester maximum was not clearly stated on any University website until this past spring and evaded the awareness of many students who receive financial aid.
The Student Registration and Financial Services website currently includes a short line acknowledging the limit on Penn's "grant-based" aid policy to just "eight academic semesters." That line was not included as recently as March 20, according to an archived version of the webpage.
This discrepancy is also reflected in a web page on the School of Engineering and Applied Science's website, which details how students can submatriculate, or pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees simultaneously. (Submatriculants are highly likely to be affected by a limit on grant-based aid to four years, as their curriculum generally takes at least five years to complete.)
Although the current page on the Engineering School's site mentions that students will only receive need-based financial aid for eight semesters, this detail was not mentioned as recently as Feb. 10, when the website reassured students that they would continue to receive financial aid as long as they had undergraduate credits left to complete.
The addition of a line specifying an eight-semester maximum appeared on the Engineering School's site around the same time as Penn rebranded its financial aid program from "all grant" to "grant-based" — a change that was also reflected on the SRFS site.
Administrators said these wording changes do not reflect an actual change in policy or level of enforcement.
“For the sake of clarity, the University has made some slight changes over the years to the language describing the program, but the guidelines and procedures are exactly as they were when it was launched nine years ago,” University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy said in an emailed statement.
None of the previous rebranding efforts have incited a sustained level of student outcry. The eight-semester maximum only became widely known when a staffer in the Digital Media Design program informed students of the policy earlier this month in a closed Facebook group.
Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert who is the publisher of Cappex.com, a website connecting students to colleges and scholarships, said these wording changes, while subtle, are critical to students’ perception of financial aid policy.
“Perception is reality — if students perceive this policy in one way and it changes, it definitely affects these students,” Kantrowitz said.
He added, “This could be Penn’s method of emphasizing a certain aspect of its financial aid policy." Alternatively, the name changes could be a harbinger of some future policy change.
“Maybe the University maintains that nothing will change immediately, but in a year or two, if they switch from only giving grants to giving a mix of grants and loans, they can point to their phrasing of the policy, and say that it only says ‘grant-based’, not ‘all-grant,'" Kantrowitz said.
Leah Popowich, a spokesperson for Penn President Amy Gutmann, deferred comment on the policy's name changes to McCourt.
Only months after the policy first appeared on the SRFS website, financial aid officers began enforcing it in a more consistent manner, according to the records of students who shared emails of their interactions with SRFS staffers with The Daily Pennsylvanian.
One student, who asked to remain anonymous as he is still finalizing his financial aid package, asked a financial aid officer in 2014 about whether he would receive a consistent level of aid when pursuing a dual-degree program.
"If you are in a dual degree program, you will be able to receive aid for the 5th year," the officer replied, according to an email acquired by the DP.
No mention was made of the eight-semester limit.
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