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Credit: Georgia Ray

The coronavirus pandemic – and Penn's abrupt decision to close campus for the fall – has changed the financial situation of many Penn students and their families. But for some, trying to decrease their initial financial aid package has caused even more financial stress and uncertainty for this fall semester.

Students are able to submit re-evaluation forms if they think Student Registration and Financial Services did not provide them with enough financial aid to cover their needs. However, some of those who submitted re-evaluation forms did not receive their re-evaluated package before the fall tuition bill's Aug. 30 deadline, and consequently could not pay for the semester on time. Many students felt frustrated at how little time they had to decide if they could pay their repackaged aid, or if they would need to submit a re-evaluation form.

College sophomore Norman Chen is one of these students. After enduring financial hardship due to the pandemic, Chen said his financial aid package was insufficient for his family’s maximum contributions, and submitted a re-evaluation form in early July. He received a response from SRFS on Aug. 29, one day before the bill was due. 

But instead of awarding him more aid, SRFS decreased his financial aid package by about $15,000. After more than a week of uncertainty, SRFS followed up with Chen and provided a re-evaluated package, just before the billing grace period — which allows students extra time to pay fall tuition without incurring late fees — ended on Sept. 8.  Chen's re-evaluated package included the $15,000 that was wrongly deducted from his initial package and added an additional $25,000. 

Chen said SRFS told him that students who receive faulty tuition bills without having their packages remedied before the end of the grace period will not be charged late fees.

Chen, who is living at home in Canada this semester, speculates his financial aid may have been initially decreased because he is no longer returning to campus.

“It’s weird in a way, because they assume you're spending way less at home, and so they basically take away all the housing and all other costs they typically include in financial aid,” he said, referring to personal living costs that are typically included in financial aid packages. “I think [SRFS] realized a lot of students are being under financed, and are still working to understand what’s going on,” Chen said. 

SRFS details three different costs of attendance for the 2020-21 academic year in response to the pandemic: living on campus, living off campus, and living with family. Living on campus is currently the most expensive option at $79,635, followed by a living off campus estimation at $78,890. Living with family is the least expensive option this semester at $68,274. 

The cost of attendance for the 2019-20 academic year was $73,960.

Executive Director of SRFS Matt Sessa. (Photo from the Office of University Communications)

Executive Director of SRFS Matt Sessa explained that the living at home rate requires less aid because there are no additional housing costs families must pay, nor a necessity for students to travel when they are living with their parents. 

“So, the rationale for those folks that are living at home is that you don't actually have housing or rent expenses. Therefore, we can't include that in the cost of attendance and provide aid for that. That's similar for travel because you don't have to travel to come to campus, or you don't have any local travel to go to classes or anything like that,” he said. 

To receive financial aid for housing, students must either live on campus or off campus in Philadelphia. SRFS will not provide financial aid for students who are stuck paying leases but are not actually living in those houses or apartments.

“If somebody is actually living at home, we need to package them with the living at home, or living with family, cost of attendance, which doesn't include any amount for rent expense. But if they are living off-campus and they have lease expenses, we will certainly cover that," Sessa said. 

Sessa did acknowledge that families may have additional food and personal expenses now that students are living at home. Since Penn would usually cover these expenses if students stayed on campus, they are continuing to cover them this semester. 

“We understand that families will have real incremental costs to feed an additional family member at home. There will be, potentially, just personal expenses that are incremental as well so that's why those items are continued to be cost allowances in the living with family cost of attendance.”

The financial aid repackaging process began on Aug. 21, two weeks after the University announced that the semester would be entirely remote. During the repackaging process, some students changed their mind about their living situation or needed extra time to secure a lease, extending the amount of time it took to see their finalized award ahead of the Aug. 30 fall tuition deadline. 

Like Chen, many students felt as though they did not have enough time after receiving their repackaged financial aid to decide if they could afford to pay the bill.

A few days after Wharton sophomore Nick Hamilton paid his initial tuition bill, he unexpectedly received an alert from SRFS saying that he had another balance to pay just a few days before the Aug. 30 deadline. 

“I thought I had paid off the balance on my bill, but a couple days before the bill was due, Penn put a new balance on there,” he said. “That was unexpected and caused a lot of stress for me and my family. We then had to go through a series of emails to get that balance changed to what it was supposed to be.” 

Credit: Hannah Lazar

The office of Student Financial Services.

Similar to Chen, Hamilton said his repackaged financial aid award was incorrectly calculated as though he were living at home with his family. He does not know how long it will take SRFS to rectify the issue, and the grace period ended Sept. 8.

"I have no idea what’s going on, they didn’t tell me anything but there’s just this balance sitting there and I don’t know what to do," Hamilton said. "I swear, the only thing preventing me from succeeding at this school is the financial aid.”

But Chen believes the University should provide financial relief for students beyond a tuition freeze, adding that the various fees, like technology, included in this semester's tuition are unreasonable because students cannot use campus facilities. 

“The fact that tuition is only freezing and it didn’t even go down compared to last year, they only prevented it from increasing, also feels like a discrepancy,” he continued. 

Despite reducing financial aid packages for students living at home, the financial aid budget this year increased to $282 million, a 14% increase from last year’s $247 million. Though the February Trustees meeting initially announced that the budget would increase to $256 million, the board increased the budget to $282 million at the June meeting to account for the additional COVID-19 Summer Savings Grant and additional aid in anticipation of increased need this year.

For students who may be feeling stressed about their financial aid situation, Sessa suggests that they reach out to their financial aid counselor. 

“I think always the best advice is to reach out to us directly, to their counselor or to the general SFS line,” he said. "We do have some people working extraordinary hours – more than just the standard hours – to help answer the phone calls during the day."

The office is hoping to hire more staff members to combat the long wait times for calls and delayed responses to emails, but it will take some time, Sessa said.

"We're also looking at bringing in potentially other people from other areas to help where they have some knowledge as well. It's difficult to bring folks in quickly because of the specialized nature of the knowledge base and the questions and what you need to know to be able to answer the questions."

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