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Columns

Ha ’18: Is Brown a real lemon?

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, February 11, 2015

From the standpoint of an outsider, Brown has many unique and attractive features. It seems to have liberal academic, social and financial traits that are drastically different from those of other institutions: the open curriculum, the progressive student body and the University’s promise to meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need for domestic first-year applicants, respectively.

Perhaps this is why the University’s applicant pool grows in size every year. On the surface, it appears that Brown students are free to explore diverse academic fields without much financial concern while socializing with their open and humanitarian peers. Dreams come true right here on — or near —  the Main Green, regardless of who you are or where you are from.

From the outside, Brown is truly glittering. But there is a different story when considered from an insider’s perspective.

The highly-praised open curriculum sometimes leads to a shallowly educated student body. Meanwhile, supposedly liberal and open-minded Brown students often become restrained by some of their preconceived ideals, building rude and intolerant attitudes towards certain viewpoints.

I hope to discuss these two issues in future columns. But for this piece, I focus on the financial aspects of the University that may differ from the expectations of outsiders.

First, the University’s promise to “meet 100 percent of demonstrated need,” as stated on its website for financial aid for first-year applicants, is often a fallacious advertisement. The slogan remains true only within the University’s own interpretation of “demonstrated need.” What the government calculates to be a student’s demonstrated need often differs from what Brown calculates — and mostly, the latter is the less generous of the two.

Brown is already known for its efforts to conserve funds in terms of financial aid for students. Data gathered by The Herald suggests that, on average, students receive less in University scholarships in comparison with Ivy League peers.

This, in part, may be attributed to the University’s relatively small budget. But upon further investigation, we can find more aspects that contribute to the un-leveling of the playing field.

The $2,600 in summer earnings that the University expects from the Class of 2018 could be considered one of them. While I do believe that this policy can help students in various ways, it certainly does not go along with the University’s guarantee to fulfill students’ financial needs.

There are many additional aspects — such as legacy admission — that hint at the importance of wealth within our campus. There are many factors that benefit those with money and harm those without.

This is a double-edged sword. While this makes admission more of an inheritance than something justifiably earned, students still tend to prioritize financial aid over everything else, according to the Undergraduate Council of Students’ fall 2014 poll. This obviously requires more money. Brown’s strategy to increase the size of the endowment could be justified, if it is to support underprivileged students.

But the operating budget deficit is rising every year to compensate not only for the growing amount of aid to students, but also for increased spending in many other areas — the deficit rose roughly 58 percent from $5.5 million in fiscal year 2013 to $8.7 million in fiscal year 2014. Consequently, students are financially burdened even before stepping foot on their career paths.

This creates an incessant loop of troubles. The University’s small budget forces it to offer more opportunities and resources for the wealthy in order to grow the endowment, and the underprivileged students lose even more opportunities for social mobility.

Brown no longer looks so pretty, does it?

What is perhaps the most problematic is the lack of transparency — transparency in the school’s environment, academia and finances. Problems become diseases when we conceal and hide them. Surmounting the problems related to income inequality and its timeless consequences through generations will be impossible if we blindly declare that all is well.

Though Brown may seem so perfect and peaceful from outside, many of us are aware of the complaints and noises rising from the heart of the institution. This may be attributed to many factors, like the lack of leadership, ineffectual investment or inefficient management of the budget.

At a more concrete level, the University should avoid relying on short-sighted financial tactics. Starting more group-specific programs or social work could lead to changes at a local level, but that still would not eradicate the deep-seated origins of injustice.

We need to take steps closer to the root of the problem. We need to stop lying to others, and — more importantly — to ourselves about the greatness of Brown. We need to stop believing that all of our actions are ideal and correct. We need to stop attracting students with misleading phrases like “100 percent.”

What we must first do is reconfigure what makes Brown unique, different from others.

It is not necessary for the University to make a promise to “meet 100 percent of demonstrated need,” because unrealistic words should never define who we are.  If we, as a community, begin prioritizing honesty and transparency, perhaps that “100 percent” can be met not solely in financial terms, but also through academic and social means.

This would allow us to construct a community — and furthermore a society — where selflessness, honesty and transparency are respected and cherished.

All that glitters is not gold — Brown may seem to be glittering, but as of now, it does not seem to be purely golden. But it does not really matter. We do not have to be golden or be the creme de la creme of all institutions. When was being at the top of the list part of our spirit?

Brown should not be condemned simply for its errors and mistakes — in fact, there are no institutions without imperfections. But what should be more emphasized is working together to construct our own unique style and character, clearly outlining what ideals we, as a community, must embrace.

 

David Ha ‘18 can be contacted at woosuk_ha@brown.edu.

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  1. If you major in something that gets you a lucrative job, paying tuition is not a problem. Yes, it’s very expensive, but when Brown offers you career paths that START at $100k/year+bonus+benefits+more, it’s really those who choose to study other things who have the problems.

    Then again, the spirit of the university seems ruined if you can only study the lucrative arts.

  2. An important thing that I would like to add to this article is the lack of funding for students who are paying their own way. I graduated from Brown with over $100k in loans. My parents did not make enough money to pay for my college, however according to Brown they were responsible for paying half of my tuition (“Parent Contribution”)… every year. My first year, I applied for that amount in private loans, then got a message from Brown that there were still federal loans I was eligible for (lower interest). Why weren’t these federal loans originally made accessible to me? Because Brown was shorting me, assuming my parents would front the rest of the bill. This happened every year. And every year I had to find a new cosigner for my $25k private loan, as the previous cosigner’s credit was lowered, and my parents didn’t have good enough credit to begin with. I appealed my financial aid multiple years, all without any change. I called the Office of Financial Aid requesting a consultation or help to find outside loans and funds, but they would only point me to the list on their website. I was a credit-less undergraduate who had sunk family members’ credit scores, trying to find loans phe was eligible for regardless of the incredibly high interest rates. My last summer financial aid package email made me burst into tears, thinking I wouldn’t be able to finish my education because my aid had been lowered by $10k – the exact amount of my mom’s bonus that year. Even if my parents WERE paying my way, is it right to assume any extra funds should be devoted 100% to Brown? The Office of Financial Aid could see that I applied for a loan equivalent to the amount of the “Parent Contribution” EVERY year before that… why couldn’t they see that there was no “Parent Contribution” in my case? Why were they never able to sit down and talk to me about my financial package, so I could at least understand what was happening? My mom and I considered having me emancipated so that I could fill out the FAFSA as an independent… but you have to make ~$12k/year for that, which I wasn’t going to be able to do while attending Brown. I met a lot of students at Brown who had parents financially able to pay their tuition. I also met a lot of students whose families were less fortunate than mine, and they were fully covered by the university’s financial package. For those students, I think Brown’s financial aid is marvelous, and am grateful they were able to receive a top-notch education thanks to the generosity of Brown. However for those in the middle-class, whose parents are buried in debt, have poor credit, make enough to pay the bills year in and year out… where is the financial assistance? And why isn’t there an option to prove that the student and the student alone are the ones paying the bill – so that the financial aid may be determined based on their financial status? Obviously this method would have its shortcomings as well, but given all that I had to go through to receive my education… and knowing that there were many others who did not have these woes… it’s really hard for me to justify the financial aid methods practiced at Brown.

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