After weeks of confusion and unrest over the state of financial aid for fifth-year undergraduates, one academic department's email seems to have settled the matter for some students while leaving many other questions unresolved.
A selected group of rising fifth-year undergraduates in the School of Engineering and Applied Science will continue to receive financial aid for the coming semester but not for any semesters after that, according to the email Bioengineering officials sent to several of listservs within the department early on Aug. 1.
“9th semester submatriculating SEAS students, who have previously received a PennGrant, will continue to receive a PennGrant for Fall 2017,” the email stated, adding that after the fall semester, aid under Penn’s “all grant” policy is only guaranteed for eight undergraduate semesters in total.
Many rising fifth-year students only learned about this policy last month when they received their bills for the coming semester and realized that they had been given almost zero grants. For many, this was a direct contradiction of what Student Registration and Financial Services had told them in previous years, though the University has maintained that this policy has been in place since 2008.
“That has always been the rule, although SFS has been allowing some exceptions until now,” the email from the Bioengineering department said. The statement did not provide a reason as to why the University was choosing to enforce this rule at this particular time.
The policy articulated in the email appears to settle the fate of some submatriculating students who have been troubled in recent weeks by Penn's decision to rigidly enforce an eight-semester limit on aid packages without loans.
“Beyond the submatriculating students, discussions with SFS are ongoing concerning support for undergraduates that legitimately require funding beyond 8 semesters,” Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and Engineering Professor Russell Composto said in an emailed statement.
Rising fifth-year senior Sushmitha Yarrabothula is a bioengineering major who is submatriculating into the Systems Engineering master's program. She was not offered a Penn Grant for her coming semester, which means under the terms of the email she wouldn’t have been covered by a grant-based aid package aid for the fall semester.
After continued contact with her advisor in SRFS, she was awarded an aid package with many more grants two weeks ago.
“There are some who received their aid for their ninth or even tenth semester, and some who didn’t — that’s what the process looks like right now,” Yarrabothula said. She added that she wasn’t sure why she was awarded her financial aid package over some of her peers.
(New to The Daily Pennsylvanian? Read our other coverage of financial aid policy, including a piece about how fifth year students have received aid packages full loan and an investigation of what the University's "grant-based" policy really means.)
“I'm honestly just so upset at everything that's happened with regards to this issue in the past month,” said a rising fifth-year Engineering senior who asked to not be named in fear of potential backlash from SRFS officers. She is also submatriculating like Yarrabothula, but planned to finish her two degrees in two additional semesters rather than one.
“I'm currently being told to change my schedule to fit my undergraduate degree into one more semester and just not finish my master's degree at all or to take loans to finish my final semester,” she said.
It’s not clear if the policy laid out by the Bioengineering department extends to other Engineering departments or to other undergraduate schools. Engineering Dean Vijay Kumar did not respond to several requests for comment on this article, but previously said in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that Engineering is working on "a case-by-case basis" with affected students.
Composto declined to comment on whether this statement from the Bioengineering department is the official position that SRFS will be adopting university-wide.
Karen Hamilton, the SRFS director of communications, would not confirm if the policy laid out in the email is now the financial aid office's official stance, but said “SFS, schools, advisors and faculty will continue to evaluate the special circumstances of any student who needs more time to complete their undergraduate degree and will offer compassionate and comprehensive solutions.”
University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy deferred to Hamilton's statement when asked if the Bioengineering policy applied to any other unit of Penn.
Other popular departments within the Engineering School such as Computer Science have not sent out similar notifications.
The fact that such an important update to the ongoing discussion surrounding financial aid was announced by a single department to a selected group of students rather than communicated directly by SRFS has been viewed by some students as the latest example of administrators failing to disseminate information on a deeply important issue. Many students only first learnt of a seeming change in SFS enforcement’s policy in late July through a Facebook post by a staffer in the Integrated Studies Program.
“It’s troubling [that] we’re learning critical financial aid information from a meme page,” rising Engineering junior Brandon Gonzalez said.
Yarrabothula agreed, adding that, “Had SFS been clear about what was happening, they probably wouldn’t have this problem right now.”
Without general updates from the University, students said they have come to appreciate these isolated notifications from individual departments, such as the recent email from the Bioengineering department.
“I think a lot of the administrators in Engineering are actually on the students’ side," Yarrabothula said.
Gonzalez transferred to the Engineering School at the end of his sophomore year in June. He did so knowing that he was likely to need financial aid for a ninth or tenth semester as his late transfer left him with a sizable amount of academic credits to fulfill in Engineering.
After speaking to other students and looking at SRFS policies online earlier in the year, Gonzalez was confident it could be done.
“I looked at the website, and how I understood it was Penn could at the very least guarantee at least eight semesters of financial aid. I didn’t read it as they will only grant eight semesters,” he said.
The University’s recent clarification of this policy has put a halt to Gonzalez’s plans. He said he may need to take out loans to finish his degree, which would pile on to his existing debt, or take summer classes to finish his credits, which would mean sacrificing opportunities to work over the summer. Gonzalez isn’t the only one now faced with these tough choices.
“I’m not sure about other classes, but the classes of 2017 and 2018, when we entered Penn, we were promised financial aid for the undergraduate time,” Yarrabothula said. “Now, students from the Class of 2018 won’t even get aid for their ninth semester.”
“It would have been much more reasonable if they said after this class, like the Class of 2021, things will change,” Gonzalez said. “We based our academic plans on the preconception that we would have this aid.”
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.