The Record article on College financial aid policy is excellent. Kudos to reporter Lauren Bender ’15! Let’s spend four days discussing it. Many of my comments will appear critical but I am aiming for constructive criticism. This is one of the best Record articles of the last several years. Day 4:

In the experience of Lily An ’15, the Office of Financial Aid has not been very generous.

“When I got in, I got into both Amherst and Williams,” An said. “Amherst gave me more financial aid. Williams gave me less, but also gave me the book grant. I went to previews for both schools. When I was at Williams, my mom came with me and went to the financial aid office and asked them to match Amherst’s offer. They took a look at my numbers and discovered that they had given me ‘too much,’ and took away both the money and the book grant.”

1) This (and the rest of the article) is great reporting by Bender. Kudos!

2) Whoa! I have never heard of the financial aid office decreasing an already-made aid offer. Has anyone else? Is this common? One cynical take would be that the College, like a good used car salesman, “reprices” deals depending on supply and demand. That is, the College was originally X interested in An, and so gave her a deal worth Y. It then figured out that it was really less than X interested in An. So, it changed the deal to Z < Y. 3) Would be good to know some more details. What sort of mistake was made? Future historians would love if Bender/An were to make public the underlying documents.

Because An didn’t like Amherst as much, she decided to attend the College.

EphBlog always recommends that applicants pick Williams over Amherst, especially female applicants who are likely to find the male/female ratio in Amherst/Smith/Holyoke less desirable. But this is all-else-equal advice. If Amherst is giving you a much better deal — $10,000 over four years? $20,000? — then Williams may not be worth it.

“My parents had to take out a second mortgage on their home because they don’t want me to graduate with debt,” she said. “I am really lucky in that sense. But they were getting close to paying off their first mortgage. You don’t want to send your kid to a school they don’t like, but they shouldn’t have to pay that much money.”

Indeed. As always, parents should follow EphBlog’s advice to shelter as much money as possible away from the prying eyes of college financial aid officials. Remember: The College is not your friend. Most important tips: No money in the child’s name, maximize all retirement accounts, pay off the mortgage.

An said she felt that the College was squeezing out the middle class with their financial aid policies.

“I have such a negative impression of them,” she said. “Williams says they want students who are diverse, but I guess I’m not socioeconomically diverse enough for them. But you’re not supposed to complain, because if you’re not on financial aid then it must mean that your family can afford it.”

Indeed. Although I think that An may be misunderstanding why the College does what it does.

The College is a bureaucratic institution first and foremost. (Side note: I need to write a post entitled “See Like a College” that is a riff on James Scott‘s ’58 Seeing Like A State.) It is not that An is not “socioeconomically diverse enough” for Williams. It is that Williams measures socioeconomic diversity in a specific way: Did neither of your parents graduate from a 4 year college? If you answer Yes, you provide socio-economic diversity. If you answer No, you do not.

Ashley Graves ’15 also said that her experience with financial aid had not been a positive one.

“The people who work in financial aid are nice and relatively helpful, but they can’t do anything about the financial obligations the College expects from its students,” she said.

Correct. These policies are set by the Administration. Don’t blame Paul Boyer and his crew.

Graves has had to take out additional loans beyond the College’s maximum $16,000.

“Every year since freshman year, I’ve taken out the maximum amount of loans,” she said. “It will be $26,500 by the time I graduate, plus the computer loan, which is an extra $2000.”

Graves says she has to work three jobs to get by – as well as to help support her family.

“I came into sophomore year working three jobs,” she said. “I constantly felt like I had to be earning money to support myself. The other thing is that I’m an athlete, and sports aren’t cheap. If I need sneakers, competition shoes, doctor’s visits, proper gear and proper things to maintain my health – that’s ridiculously expensive. I felt like I was always working. Everything just broke down. My friendships suffered, my grades suffered, my relationships suffered, but God forbid I miss a day of work. I was always on time for work.”

Kudos to Graves for sharing her story and to Bender for great reporting.

Graves added that the burden on her family has been enormous.

“I’m just trying to figure out where the money is going,” she said. “I feel like as one of two teenagers from a single parent household, I should be getting more aid. It’s a burden on me and it’s a burden on my family.”

This is the end of my commentary, but Bender really ought to write a series of articles on this topic because we need more details. How, exactly, does the process work? How did Williams decide that Graves only gets $X of aid while another students get $Y? Presumably, the College thinks that Graves’s single parent ought to contribute more dollars than she can, in fact, contribute or that Graves thinks she ought to contribute. But we need to understand the exact details by which these determinations are made. Walk us through the various forms, provide copies of forms (perhaps with names redacted) that students submitted, compare the awards received and so on.

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