Yale pressured by rivals’ aid changes

Christina Anderson’s love affair with Yale began the moment she first set foot on campus her senior year of high school.

“I loved the Yale brochure, the Yale dorms, I had this idea I just loved,” Anderson said. “I remember walking down this beautiful street and I just remember being completely wowed at the dorms — they were gorgeous.”

Although Julian Hertz’s experience with Yale was not love at first sight, Yale was also the rural Virginian’s first choice. He received a “likely letter” from the admissions office in February of his senior year notifying him that he would be accepted early as one of the top candidates in the applicant pool. When Yale followed up with personal phone calls from professors and packages of Boola Boola paraphernalia, Hertz said he felt as if there was a special place for him at Yale.

But neither Anderson nor Hertz ended up coming to Yale. Instead, Anderson chose to go to Harvard, and Princeton successfully wooed Hertz. As much as they wanted to be Elis, both students turned down Yale for one reason: financial aid. Yale’s financial aid packages, they said, just did not measure up to what Harvard and Princeton offered them.

“Financial aid was a huge part of it,” Anderson said. “When I got the financial aid packages, it was twice as expensive for me to go to Yale, even though that was only $5,000 to $6,000 a year. That was really significant for me.”

Despite Yale’s courtship, Hertz crossed Yale off his list, narrowing his choices to Princeton and Harvard because both universities offered him better financial aid packages. When he asked all three schools to raise their offers, he said, Princeton and Harvard jumped at the chance, but Yale would not reconsider his package.

“After that, Yale was off the table,” said Hertz, now a sophomore at Princeton. “There was no way my parents could fork over that much, and there was no way I wanted to graduate with the kind of loans they were asking me to. For me it was a done deal, and I came to Princeton.”

In turning down an offer from Yale for financial aid reasons, Anderson and Hertz are not alone. As Yale President Richard Levin himself has acknowledged, Harvard and Princeton have assumed a competitive edge over Yale because of sweeping changes they made to their financial aid policies in the past few years.

Last year, Harvard made it possible for students from low-income families to attend the university for free, and four years ago, Princeton enabled students to graduate virtually debt-free by eliminating loans. But to this date, Yale has not yet followed through with similar changes.

This year, as Harvard and Princeton witnessed record numbers of undergraduate applications, increasing their applicant pools by 15 percent and 17 percent respectively, Yale saw a 1.2 percent decrease. It is unclear whether the schools’ financial aid policies affected admissions trends this year, but Harvard Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons attributed his university’s spike to its new financial aid policy targeted at low-income students.

Although Yale’s financial aid policy falls short for many students when compared to policies at Harvard and Princeton, it is on par with or better than all of its other competitors, including the other Ivy League universities and Stanford, as Levin has noted.

“We have not quite made the aggressive moves that Harvard and Princeton have, but we are significantly more generous than anyone else,” Levin said last fall.

In response to a shifting competitive landscape — and amid sharp criticism from some students on campus — Levin is planning to unveil changes to Yale’s financial aid policies as soon as this week.

“We don’t want to be left behind, so we’re definitely going to consider these major proposals,” Levin said at an open forum last week, referring to proposals drafted by the Yale College Council and the Undergraduate Organizing Committee.

The weight of student loans lingers after graduation

Abbey Hudson ’03 said she graduated from Yale with about $75,000 in debt. While Hudson took out $15,000 in loans to meet the self-help portion of her financial aid package, she also had to take out another $50,000 to cover her parents, who could not afford to pay their expected contribution.

Today, two years after her graduation, Hudson said she has barely started paying back her loans, and she is haunted by the amount of debt she faces.

“It’s something that’s just constantly on your mind, and constantly effects what you do,” Hudson said. “Every time you go out to dinner, or buy a pair of shoes, you wonder, ‘Do I have enough money to do that?'”

At Yale, about 31 percent of undergraduates took out student loans for the current academic year, Yale Financial Aid Director Myra Smith said. The average amount of indebtedness for the Class of 2004 was $14,967, Smith said. At Harvard, the average indebtedness of students in the Class of 2004 was just over half that at Yale, at about $8,830, Harvard Director of Financial Aid Sally Donahue said.

But there is a different story to be told at Princeton. The average indebtedness for Princeton’s Class of 2005 is expected to be about $1,900, Princeton Senior Associate Financial Aid Director Robin Moscato said. Students are not required to take out loans as part of their financial aid package, but some voluntarily take out small loans to pay for peripheral expenses such as eating clubs, Moscato said.

Unlike Hudson, Sean Leimbach, who is currently a freshman at Princeton, will not have to worry about burdensome debts because of Princeton’s no-loan policy.

“That was a big deciding factor in me even coming here, the idea of me not having to worry about debts,” Leimbach said. “It just makes it a lot easier to know you’re not coming out with that hanging over your head.”

In 2001, Princeton eliminated required student loans, replacing the loan portion of students’ self-help packages with grant money. While about 38 percent of Princeton students were on aid before the elimination of loans, about 50 percent of Princeton students are currently receiving need-based aid, which Moscato said helps boost student diversity on campus.

To date, Princeton is the only need-based university to eliminate loans for all financial aid recipients, Moscato said.

“Students prefer to not take $16,000 worth of loans for their undergraduate education — it’s very simple,” Moscato said.

But Smith said she thought the average amount of indebtedness for Yale graduates is not unreasonable. In fact, she said, it is equal to or less than that at most other top universities.

“I think that it is not unreasonable to consider how it compares to the total cost and the total value of a Yale education,” Smith said. “If I look at it as an investment, it’s not an unreasonable amount of money. It’s a serious obligation, but it’s not unreasonable.”

At Yale, like at many other universities, students on financial aid can avoid taking out loans by working additional hours to fulfil their self-help contributions. They also can eliminate loans with outside merit-based scholarships, summer earnings or additional parental contributions.

Still, Princeton may continue to lure students with a no-loan financial aid policy as its bait.

“It was probably the most important factor,” Maria Guerrero-Reyes, a freshman at Princeton, said of her choice to attend Princeton. “Had I been offered loans instead of grants, I most likely would have gone somewhere else because I wouldn’t have been able to afford it and I wouldn’t have wanted to burden myself for the future.”

Students balance academic studies with work study

In addition to loans, term-time work study is part of a student’s self-help contribution. Compared to Harvard and Princeton, Yale has the highest academic year self-help levels, expecting students to raise the most amount of money through a combination of term-time work study and loans.

Yale expects its financial aid students to contribute $4,200 each to their education through a combination of loans, work study and outside scholarships, if available. Meanwhile, Harvard expects a self-help contribution of $3,500 and Princeton expects an average of $2,800 — freshmen at Princeton are expected to contribute $2,465 this year, sophomores $2,865, juniors $2,895, and seniors $2,925.

As a result, students at Yale sometimes work longer hours during the academic year than their Harvard and Princeton counterparts.

In order to fulfill one’s self-help contribution through work alone, students at Yale must work about 14 hours a week, if they are paid Yale’s $10 minimum wage rate and work during reading period and exam week — a total of 30 weeks per year. Students at Harvard would have to work about 13 hours a week to raise their entire self help through a campus job, assuming they earn Harvard’s $8.25 minimum wage rate. At Princeton, students would have to work about 10 hours on minimum wage of $9.15.

But several Yale financial aid students said they work more than 15 hours each week in order to raise money to pay their self-help contribution and have spending money for the semester.

Phoebe Rounds ’07, who said she worked over 15 hours per week last semester, said she thinks it is unfair that students on financial aid are expected to work while those not on financial aid are not, although many of them still work a campus job for spending money.

“I certainly enjoy the experience of working and I don’t want to say that I think working is necessarily a bad experience, but the problem I think is there’s not the same amount of choice for students on financial aid,” Rounds said.

But Smith said she thinks the number of hours most students at Yale work is reasonable. Smith said students at Yale on financial aid worked about six hours a week on average this year.

“In both the cases of loan and work, we’re talking about averages and I do worry about students on the high ends of those averages, but usually they’re given some unique family situation, and those are the students we like to see come into our office to see if we can help them in a one to one counseling opportunity,” Smith said.

She added that research also shows that working a reasonable number of hours while in college can help a student be successful in a future career.

In some cases, students work not only to pay their contributions, but also to help their parents meet their expected contributions.

Lauren Burke ’05 said she worked 15 to 20 hours per week at Yale her freshman and sophomore years. Currently, Burke said she works about five to 10 hours a week because she now lives off campus, which she said is less expensive than University room and board.

“As a result, I don’t do as many extracurriculars,” said Burke, who, like Rounds, has been active in the UOC’s efforts surrounding financial aid. “I don’t study as much as I should, so it is one of the things in my life I have to devote time to.”

Expected family contributions are anything but predictable

Last spring, Esteli Gomez ’08 was set to turn down Yale for financial reasons, and instead go to Harvard or Princeton.

When Gomez received her aid packages last spring, the amount of money her parents were expected to pay for her education at Yale was nearly double the amount of money her parents would have had to pay at both Harvard and Princeton. Because her parents fall in the $40,000 to $60,000 income bracket, Gomez qualified for a reduced expected parental contribution at Harvard, where her parents — who also own a home — would be expected to pay about $8,000 a year toward the cost of her education, Gomez said. Similarly, Princeton calculated her expected parent contribution to be about $9,800, Gomez said, but at Yale, her expected parental contribution came to about $15,000.

But in an effort to lure Gomez, Yale lowered her expected parental contribution to $8,800 after she asked the University to reconsider its offer. With her bolstered aid package, Gomez became a Yalie.

Gomez’s story illustrates a puzzling reality of varying expected family contributions across universities. While the basic methodology used to calculate the expected family contribution and need is the same for most schools in the nation — each applicant files a Free Application for Federal Student Aid as well as a CSS Profile form — the expected contributions tend to be different across schools because of the way universities handle special circumstances such as medical expenses, or the number of children in college in a household, Smith said.

“In theory, we use the same basic analysis, but when you start dealing with specific circumstances or institutional policies, you can begin to see divergence,” Smith said.

The primary difference between the ways Princeton and Yale calculate parental contributions is that Princeton excludes home equity in its calculations, while Yale does not, Smith said.

Harvard made a major move last spring to lower parent contributions for low-income students, and the university is beginning to see its rewards. Under Harvard’s new policy, parents earning less than $40,000 are not required to contribute to the cost of their child’s education, and parents earning between $40,000 and $60,000 pay a reduced parental contribution. Before the change, the average parent contribution for parents with incomes under $40,000 was $2,300, according to a Harvard press statement.

Under the new system, Harvard has attracted greater numbers of low-income and minority applicants. This year, the percentage of students applying to Harvard for financial aid rose by 16.7 percent, and the number of students requesting an application fee waiver increased by 45 percent. In addition, the number of black applicants to Harvard increased by about 28 percent while the number of Latino applicants increased by about 15 percent, according to Harvard statistics.

Meanwhile, students at Yale whose parents make under $40,000 are not necessarily exempted from paying family contributions, unlike their peers at Harvard. For example, Gloria Alday ’07 said her parents made a combined $22,000 last year and do not have any assets, but Yale asked her parents for a $4,000 parental contribution. Alday said she has not asked Yale to reconsider her aid package because she is scared to meet with financial aid officers. But Smith said students with concerns should always feel welcome to meet with officers.

While the tales of students like Gomez and Alday suggest Yale is trailing behind Harvard and Princeton in the amount parents are expected to pay for their children’s education, Smith said it is important to note that Yale does not always expect a higher family contribution from students than its competitors.

“It’s not always a constant that Yale is less generous that those schools,” Smith said. “A lot of it depends on the family situation and what information we have when we do a needs-analysis.”

Yale gains ground with new summer aid policy

While the University may lag in other financial categories, Yale offers policies on outside merit aid and summer contributions that are on par with or better than Harvard and Princeton.

Yale’s financial aid policy allows outside merit scholarships to replace larger portions of students’ self-help before decreasing institutional grant aid.

Albert Lawrence ’07, unlike many Yalies on financial aid, said he does not have to take out any loans or work on campus to fulfill the self-help component of his aid package. That is because Lawrence is raking in about $7,000 a year through outside merit scholarships from various organizations, including Coca-Cola and The Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

Under Yale’s policy, the $7,000 Lawrence brings in from outside merit scholarships goes toward fulfilling both his academic-year self help and summer earnings — a estimated contribution of about $6,000 during the current academic year, which he would otherwise have to work or borrow to pay off. The additional merit money left over from the difference between his self-help and total outside merit aid is used to decrease Yale’s grant aid.

Lawrence said he is pleased with Yale’s current financial aid policy, which he said is competitive with most top schools.

“If it’s not cloud nine, then it’s at least seven or eight,” Lawrence said.

Like Yale, Princeton also allows outside scholarships to reduce both academic-year self help and summer earnings. But Harvard only allows outside merit aid to reduce students’ academic year self-help before reducing Harvard’s institutional grant aid.

Dzifa Gbewonyo, a Harvard sophomore, said she thinks Harvard’s restriction on outside awards is the main problem in its financial aid policy.

“From my experience Yale’s system is better because, in terms of the outside award, it allows more to be actually included,” Gbewonyo said. “It’s rather important because I guess it makes you feel as if the scholarships you were awarded aren’t really worthwhile, or it’s something that’s going to waste. If there was something that I would change about the financial aid system, that would probably be the main thing.”

Although the summer student contribution expectations at the three universities are similar, Yale has tried to pull away from the pack with its new International Summer Award program that Levin unveiled last month. The program eliminated the summer contribution expectation for financial aid students if they participate in Yale-sponsored study and internship programs abroad in the summer.

At Yale, freshmen on financial aid are expected to contribute $1,650 from their summer earnings, while sophomores, juniors and seniors are expected to contribute $2,150. Harvard’s summer contribution levels were similar, ranging from $1,850 to $2,200 this year. But at Princeton, the average summer contribution was $2,700 this year — freshmen were expected to earn $2,135, sophomores $2,720, juniors $2,890, and seniors $3,050, Moscato said.

Meanwhile, Princeton offers a program under which students unable to raise their summer contribution are granted half of it in the form of a loan, and must either work or take out loans to raise the other half, Moscato said. While Yale used to offer a similar summer income waiver grant, which allowed students to waive their summer contributions once for specific types of unpaid summer work, the University phased the program out when self-help levels were lowered in 2001, Smith said.

Students, officials consider the future of financial aid policy

This year, as Levin and other top administrators have weighed potential changes to the University’s financial aid policies, students have put pressure on officials to act quickly in besting policies at Harvard and Princeton. Last week, Levin responded to the YCC and UOC demands by suggesting that he may soon institute plans to decrease the self-help or parental contribution portions of students’ financial aid packages.

Administrators met this weekend with the Yale Corporation to discuss potential financial aid changes and Levin is expected to make an announcement on a new policy as early as this week. But some students have said he is not moving fast enough and fear that any changes he makes may not be enough.

Fifteen students, many of them members of the UOC, staged a sit-in at the admissions office last Thursday in an effort to pressure Levin to make sweeping changes in both self-help and parental contributions. Some students have also criticized Levin for not taking students’ input on financial aid seriously.

“At all the open forums I’ve been at, he’s been interested not in listening to people but shutting people up,” said Carolina Oster ’05, who also participated in the sit-in.

In an interview with the News last Thursday, Levin said he thought the students who attended last Tuesday’s open forum were able to express their views.

“One of my objectives at the forum was to hear from students,” Levin said. “I have now heard quite a bit and I’m now in a better position to make the financial decision.”

Julia Gonzales ’05, one of the students who rallied at the admissions office, said she and the other protesters want to make sure that decision creates a policy at least as generous as any of Yale’s rivals.

“We know the University is working on reform,” Gonzales said. “We want to make sure it’s the best and most comprehensive reform which puts Yale number one in the nation.”

YCC President Andrew Cedar ’06 said he is hopeful the University will take a leading stance on financial aid.

“I think we all hope that the University takes on these issues aggressively,” Cedar said. “These concerns are really important and they’re concerns in terms of wanting to make sure that we are on par with other universities.”

Outside of the admissions office sit-in  last Thursday, students rally for financial aid reform.
Ed Stein
Outside of the admissions office sit-in last Thursday, students rally for financial aid reform.

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