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Simon Liebling '12: The fallacy of demonstrated need

When the Corporation decided last spring that it would be just and good to accompany a recession and deep budget cuts at the University with still another tuition hike, disregarding once again the student interests to which they are, of course, unaccountable, I heard two prevailing responses.

First, well-deserved outrage from students once again called upon to bankroll the Corporation's indulgent aspirations. But the second, infinitely more aggravating reaction came from the privileged student scabs who said that tuition hikes don't matter. The people who actually have to pay more have the means to pay more, they said, because everyone else is protected by Brown's commitment to meet 100 percent of its students' demonstrated need.

Makes sense. If the Financial Aid office guarantees that it will compensate undergraduates for their full need, then every dollar still solicited is a dollar that a family can afford to pay. That privilege, put to use, can go a long way towards helping disadvantaged students.

But things don't work out quite that efficiently or equitably, and so tuition hikes still matter for students concerned about their ability to afford a Brown education (38 percent of Brown students, according to a Herald poll last semester).

The first problem is simple sticker shock. Posted tuition levels, published on Brown's Web site, in college guides and beyond, can dissuade potential applicants, even those who would have had the benefit of financial aid had they applied. Those choosing on the basis of cost between cheaper public universities and Brown, with its astronomical advertised price, are pushed to the former by the perceived expense of a Brown education, particularly when considering that they are less likely to receive quality college guidance during high school.

Then there's the fact that Brown remains need-aware when evaluating international applicants. For them, tuition hikes mean a real increase in the cost to their families. And so the international student community on which the University prides itself winds up a cross-section of the international aristocracy rather than of the diverse societies we would prefer it represent.

But above all else, Brown — despite its supposed commitment to meet all demonstrated need — leaves deserving students without the aid they require, and so long as that is true tuition hikes will carry real consequences for students when money is in short supply.

We are surrounded by the empirical evidence of this failure. Students take on loans and rack up thousands of dollars in debt, forcing them to worry about money from the moment they matriculate. Others face ultimatums from their families and the prospect of being unable to return to Brown, giving up the quality education they have worked so ceaselessly to earn.

Take the case of one Brown sophomore who was rebuffed twice by the Financial Aid office — initially after applying and later on appeal. For the four years from 2003 to 2006, her family's average annual income was $20,000, less than half of Brown tuition.  Her parents took out a second mortgage on their home, emptied their general savings accounts, exhausted the education funds stashed away for her and her brother, borrowed from relatives and racked up credit card debt.

But because in 2007 her father made $290,000 on a one-time stock option, she received no aid. That money couldn't go towards her tuition expenses. Her family had to use it to pay off their massive debts and rebuild their savings — her brother will be heading to college himself next year.

Worse still, though she applied as a member of the Class of 2011, Brown instead offered her a space in the Class of 2012 and did not show her a financial aid package before they asked her to commit. She sacrificed significant need-based and merit-based aid at other schools and $5,000 a year in outside scholarships, trusting that Brown would meet her need. "I cried when I got my aid letter," she says.

Left mercilessly adrift by the bureaucrats at Financial Aid, her family told her that they could only pay half, and she'd be responsible for the rest if she wanted to stay at Brown.

Still committed to her education here, she took out $18,000 of loans during the fall of her freshman year and paid the rest of her share with money saved from her gap year. The remaining three years will each take $25,000 more. She'll graduate with $93,000 dollars in debt, and the figure is only that low because she depleted her personal savings too.

Her story is a tragic repudiation of the administration's false pretense to filling all need. Their supposed commitment to meet 100 percent of demonstrated need is an empty promise. The University will meet all need as it defines need, a benchmark it sets far below any realistic measure.

With this deft trick, administrators save money for themselves while protecting their right to advertise the ostensibly progressive financial aid policy that brings the University so much acclaim. But for this sophomore and so many others, that famous reputation will be slim consolation as they spend their 20s paying for the failures of financial aid.


Simon Liebling '12 wants to hear your financial aid stories. He can be reached at simon.liebling@gmail.com.




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