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Bad Financial Aid

When a school gets into financial difficulty but wants to maintain appearances, it will fail to fully honor its commitment to meet the “full need” of admitted students. Make it hard enough for poor students to enroll, and you’ll have more space for rich students. Is that happening at Williams? I hope not.

bad financial aid – can’t attend Williams =(

After hearing such good things about financial aid for internationals at Williams, I was really disappointed by the aid package I received today.

My family has an annual income of ~35k, which is considered middle class here in Thailand. But regardless of social standing here, it’s just an impossible deal that Williams is asking for: a 17.5k family contribution in addition to 4k from me (student assets).

This strikes me as the worst news since April 1st; I won’t be able to attend my first choice college because of financial issues. =(

Has any of you received a similar deal? How should I go about appealing to their decision?

sorry if this may sound dumb, but is 120k really a lot (for an American family) in terms of combined assets for my whole family.

as far as i checked, they should meet full need for internationals, so i’m sending in a letter and also having my father write another one to explain why we cannot afford 22k…really. if we do that for four years, my parents’ life savings would be down to some 40k, which is certainly not great security considering that they plan on retiring soon.

1) Don’t people read EphBlog? The worse thing you can do is to have assets in your own name. Spend that $4,000 on a computer, clothes, really anything that you need to buy. Or “give” it to your uncle. Cash in your own name is cash that Williams (or any school) will take. (Morty mentioned some changes in this regard — making it less detrimental for a student to have money in his own name — but I am no expert on financial aid.)

2) This student should appeal. I would recommend claiming to have made a mistake by failing to mention that the $120k in family saving is for retirement in the Thailand equivalent of IRA and 401-k savings accounts. (I think that the College does not count retirement savings in its calculation of EFC — expected family contribution.)

3) I am unaware of any evidence that the College is being less generous with financial aid this year than last year, despite some chatter on College Confidential. But who knows? The Record ought to investigate.

4) What is the mechanism by which the College deals with financial aid requests from abroad? How much can it possibly understand about tax forms and financial statement in dozens of other countries, written in so many languages?

5) How is the whole system made honest? If this student had “forgotten” to note that $120k, would Williams ever have known? What about for a US student?

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#1 Comment By frank uible On April 9, 2009 @ 7:20 am

In my boyhood neighborhood the typical high school student who almost inevitably was shortly headed for military service, a minimum wage job or unemployment probably would have shrugged this story off with “life’s tough all over”.

#2 Comment By jeffz On April 9, 2009 @ 7:35 am

Every year there are some who are pleasantly surprised, and some enormously disappointed, by financial aid awards, at just about every school, including Williams. Each school has its own idiosyncratic system which leads to disparate results. Impossible to make any generalizations from a few isolated examples like this. Only after the numbers for percent of class on aid, average package, and percent international students can we make any sort of judgment as to whether Williams’ aid policies have shifted, so it is pointless to speculate. My guess is the biggest difference this year among elite schools will be less of a willingness to renegotiate aid packages based on offers from other schools. I would still try, but I bet lots of fin aid offices have been to told to tighten the reigns on that sort of practice except in truly unusual cases (mistakes in original grant, a student that is really, really wanted for some reason). The fact is, there are still so many immensely qualified applicants that Williams (and schools like it) could take 100 kids off the waitlist with qualifications virtually indistinguishable from 100 kids who decide to pass, so at least for schools such as Williams, there isn’t a huge incentive to renegotiate in this climate. And for the schools that have such incentive, they may be less able to do so due to less wealth to begin with.

#3 Comment By Larry George On April 9, 2009 @ 8:46 am

I would agree with Jeff.

As to how this is policed, I would imagine that it is fair to say “Not enough” — universally. I did notice, however, that a former Dartmouth student faces serving time for financial aid fraud (consisting of a pattern of repeated falsifications about income and assets and then attempted double-dipping on service grants that are supposed to be limited to one per student for the entire tenure) .

#4 Comment By JG On April 9, 2009 @ 8:49 am

Jeffz is right – we do better than other schools for some students and worse than other schools for some students. Each one has it’s own formula that considers different things. This doesn’t mean they’re not “need blind,” it means they calculated the “need” differently based on the individual school’s formula.

For the kid who said his family’s “life savings would be down to some 40k” – that takes a little probing. First off, “life savings” is not the same thing as a retirement account. If you have an account full of unrestricted funds that seems to be in the realm of $125,000 (4 years x $22k + remaining $40k) then of course Williams is going to expect you to contribute it. I’m amused that someone can make the “we don’t have the money” argument with that. If it actually IS in a designated retirement account like an IRA or 401k (or some equivalent), that’s another story. But if it’s just the pile of cash Mom & Dad were hoping to have around later, that will be treated like any other family who has to dip into their investment account. Isn’t “life savings” the same thing as a college fund or other investment? Again, from a post on College Confidential, we have not idea what kind of account the kid is actually talking about.

As I’ve probably said too many times, the Financial Aid office is actually one of the reasons I ultimately picked Williams over my other top choice. They worked with me (to the extent they could) to adjust my aid package upward a little bit. It was about $2500 I think, but it showed good faith. At the time home equity counted, so the EFC was too high for us to pay without a PLUS loan, but that was what the formula accounted for and nothing else could be done.

Anyone unhappy with their aid should use Williams’ online calculator to see if it is in the ballpark, then talk to the FA office and see what happens. Sadly, they won’t always be able to give you more money. But sometimes they will. It never hurts to try!