Viewpoint: The need for increased resources for students navigating financial aid systems
By Faye Thijssen
The financial aid system is notoriously difficult to navigate. At Tufts, a school with one of the wealthiest student bodies in the country, this problem poses a particular threat to the equality of education and opportunities for students across campus.
According to a study published in 2017 by The New York Times, the median family income of a student from Tufts was $224,800, with about 77% of the student body coming from the top 20% and half the student body coming from families in the top 5% of earners in the country. On a campus where the majority of students are from high-income families, the complexities of financial aid systems and regulations have a drastic impact on the accessibility of the educational, personal and career-oriented opportunities offered by Tufts.
Oscar Sullivan, a rising sophomore at Tufts, wrote about his experience filling out forms this year in an email to the Daily.
“Once all my financial information is gathered the profile takes about 3 hours, but gathering… all the documents and information they require is quite a process,” Sullivan said.
If low-income students have to spend so much more time and energy on managing their finances, filling out complex paperwork and trying to find information to guide the process, they are automatically positioned at a disadvantage compared to students who are able to reserve that time and energy for other pursuits.
This issue is further intensified for first-generation students and international students. Financial aid forms like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the CSS Profile are already complex and difficult to understand, but they can be even more confusing when parents or guardians also have no prior experience with these documents. For international students, not only may their parents or guardians have little experience with the FAFSA or CSS Profile, but there are often different and additional forms students must complete due to their non-U.S. status.
In this vein, the sheer number and variety of forms students are required to fill out and submit contributes to the difficulty of the financial aid process. Navigating the complexity of multiple forms can be difficult for students and parents, especially without additional guidance or resources.
According to Sullivan, the university could do a better job of providing guidance for students throughout the process.
“When deadlines for applying are approaching Tufts doesn’t send many reminders,” Sullivan said. “This struck me as somewhat odd because financial aid is hugely important so you would think they’d remind students when their deadlines are.”
Sullivan discussed the lack of clear direction from the administration on how best to navigate financial aid details and resources.
“I’d also like to see the school do more to direct students to the financial aid information or guidance,” Sullivan said. “Right now, the guidance exists but isn’t actually used by many students because it’s not advertised well.”
Although many of the issues and difficulties surrounding the financial aid system can be attributed to decisions of the local, state and national governments, Tufts has both the capability and the responsibility to provide its students with the resources to make the process manageable. Financial Services in the past has offered drop-in hours — and they currently offer phone appointments — to help students understand billing and financial aid. While these measures are helpful, they do not fully meet the needs of students on financial aid.
Tufts should offer more assistance like this in addition to more specific guidance for students applying for financial aid. Resources and information for financial aid applicants must also be made accessible and easy to find to avoid a scenario in which students feel the need to email several departments and individuals to find necessary information. For example, the university could list more resources that support students in filling out forms on the official financial aid website.
Another major concern with the financial aid system at Tufts centers on the effects of external scholarships on the amount of aid a student receives. According to the financial aid page of the Tufts admissions website, “If a student receives a scholarship from an outside source, the award will first be applied to reduce or eliminate the student loan and/or work study components of the student’s financial aid package.” The Student Life website elaborates that these reductions are applied to the need-based loan and/or the work study portion of the original financial aid award. Students can decide which component of their financial aid is reduced. Then, if the external aid exceeds the amount of their loan and work study award, the student’s Tufts grant will also be reduced.
External scholarships replace other forms of aid, rather than supplementing the university’s aid package and reducing family contributions. This means that students must look to more time-intensive sources of income, such as another job, in order to meet other costs associated with their expected contributions or with college living.
“Any scholarship I get just reduces my aid and doesn’t actually affect how much I have to pay,” Sullivan said. “I’ve come to the point where I don’t even apply for scholarships because I know they won’t help me at all.”
These rules about external scholarships and aid counteract the goal of helping students manage tuition and other expenses. If receiving external scholarships leads to a reduction in components of the financial aid package, it makes it exceedingly difficult for students to cover the remainder of their tuition or additional expenses stemming from paying for housing and academic resources.
The complexity and lack of adequate support when it comes to financial aid at Tufts exacerbate the vast inequalities already present between higher and lower income students at this university. Several internal rules and regulations regarding external scholarships and aid make it difficult for students to cover the remaining cost of tuition without seeing a reduction in their financial aid package. As an institution, Tufts must mitigate these disparities by providing more accessible and comprehensive systems of support for students navigating financial aid and offering reasonable pathways for students to cover their remaining costs.