University News

Aid recipients navigate contribution expectations

UCS, Office of Financial Aid collaborate to form advisory board to hear student voices

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Features of student financial aid packages, including outside scholarship reporting and summer earnings requirements, can cause financial and logistical challenges for students.

The Office of Financial Aid is working with the Undergraduate Council of Students to address these challenges through the creation of a financial aid advisory board which will facilitate direct communication between students and the financial aid office.

“We’ve been working really hard to elevate advocacy efforts around specific financial aid improvements,” said Sazzy Gourley ’16, UCS president. “It is critical to elevate this conversation to the Corporation level, so that Corporation members as well as other administrators understand how important it is that we’re resolving some of these barriers to success for students.”

Forty-four percent of all undergraduates receive need-based financial aid from the University, said Jim Tilton, director of financial aid. The University set aside $112.5 million for financial aid for the 2015-2016 academic year — an increase from the $104.1 million budgeted last year.

The Office of Financial Aid determines a student’s family contribution based on two forms: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the College Scholarship Service Profile. The FAFSA uses a formula established by the federal government to calculate a family’s expected contribution by taking into account a family’s taxed and untaxed income, assets and benefits.

But because the University also considers information on the CSS Profile, the amount of aid the University gives to a student is often different from the value derived from FAFSA.

The CSS Profile paints a clearer picture of the student’s family background by considering factors such as non-custodial parents’ income and assets owned by siblings, Tilton said. In addition, parents who make less than $60,000 per year will have zero parent contribution, he said.

Outside scholarships may also have an unpredictable effect on students’ financial aid packages.

Federal law states that outside scholarships cannot reduce the amount that parents contribute to the total cost of attending a university. Instead, they can be used to cover the student contribution portion, which includes summer earnings expectations — $2,650 for first-years and $3,100 for sophomores, juniors and seniors, work-study requirements — $2,800 per year — and student loans.

But if an outside scholarship exceeds a student’s expected contribution, the Brown University Scholarship will be reduced. The school determines the amount parents contribute based on their income and this amount does not change — even with outside scholarships, according to Brown’s policy. All other Ivy League schools have the same policy regarding outside scholarships.

“Everyone is always telling you, ‘If you need help paying for school, look for outside scholarships.’ When I received outside scholarships … I was very surprised to find out that they actually decrease the amount of Brown scholarship I was getting,” said Lauren Galvan ’16. “I spent the time and effort applying for them hoping that they would supplement the financial aid … that I was receiving from Brown.”

Kiera Peltz ’16 also said she was shocked to find out that anything over the student’s expected contribution would be reduced from Brown’s financial aid package. Though the policy stems from the Brown’s status as a provider of exclusively need-based aid, the University estimates are not always accurate, “especially for people who are not relying on their parents for any financial support,” Peltz said.

“It’s really a disincentive to get outside scholarships, because there’s only so much you can get it for,” Peltz said. “If a student is willing to go out and try to get scholarships to pay for college, he or she should not be disincentivized from doing that. That should be applauded as a proactive effort to pay for their university experience.”

Since Brown’s outside scholarship policy is based on federal regulations, Tilton said he does not envision a change in policy. Considering that outside scholarships can take away the burden of work, summer earnings and loans, it seems like a reasonable practice, he added.

These policies do not change regardless of “whether you are the president of UCS, whether you are an athlete or whether you are a concert pianist,” Tilton said.

The summer earnings requirement, which may prevent students from taking on unpaid or low-paying internships, can also be reduced or eliminated in other ways. This summer, 203 students were granted summer earnings waivers by the Center for Careers and Life After Brown to pursue internships paying below $1,000. This marks a jump from the 87 students who were supported with SEW the previous summer, said Aixa Kidd, director of BrownConnect, adding that alums, parents and donors have played a major role in expanding the funding available for the program.

BrownConnect also launched a LINK/SEW program — a bundle that includes one Linking Internships and Knowledge award and one SEW — to support both internships at home and abroad, Kidd said.

Those undertaking internships at home are granted the regular LINK/SEW award, which includes $3,500 from the LINK award and an additional $3,100 to cover the summer earnings expectation. Students traveling abroad for internships can apply for the international LINK/SEW, which includes an additional $1,500 to cover housing and travel costs.

Though funding for internships has increased significantly in recent years, more can still be done to ensure all the needs of students are met, Kidd said. The additional $1,500 for internships abroad may still not be sufficient for students who have “amazing opportunities abroad in more expensive cities,” she added.

“The LINK and SEW programs were incredibly instrumental in me being able to work at the White House,” Peltz said. “That was one of the times when Brown really stepped it up and made me feel like they really wanted me to succeed.” But the amount of funding that the University has to support students traveling for summer internships is still limited, Peltz said, adding that the amount she received did not cover the full cost of living in Washington, D.C., over the summer.

Increasing funding for internships is one of multiple concrete recommendations that emerged from discussions between students and Corporation members, Gourley said. Other recommendations that emerged from this focus group include reducing the costs of textbooks, meal plans  — specifically over spring break — and summer storage as well as increasing funding for Brown summer courses and health insurance, reducing summer earnings expectations and increasing clarity around loan options outside of Brown financial aid.

“We’re looking closely at what kinds of expenses students are experiencing throughout the year,” Tilton said. “What that allows us to do is hear directly from students who are affected by our policies. It’s been incredibly helpful.”

Input from students is crucial to driving this conversation forward, Gourley said. This advisory board aims to increase awareness within the administration about students’ main concerns and personal experiences and, through this dialogue, generate recommendations for solutions. UCS will hold campus-wide appointments for this board.

The University needs to work on making outside scholarship policies clear, especially because it is very difficult for students from middle class families to estimate the amount they will receive, Galvan said, adding that “shedding more light on how outside scholarships could affect the financial package would be beneficial to a lot of students who have a middle class income.”

Though her outside scholarships cover the entirety of her student contribution portion, Galvan has had a total of eight jobs in addition to other extracurricular commitments during her time at Brown. She has used that income to cover expenses such as textbooks and travel. “I live in Texas, so I can’t just take a $20 train home. It’s rather pricey,” she said.

While she finds her activities rewarding, Galvan said balancing work and school has been stressful. “It does take a toll on your health — your physical health and your mental health.”