Group targets fin. aid

A student group concerned about Yale’s financial aid policies handed out flyers describing possible difficulties with aid to prefrosh and their parents at Bulldog Days events this week.

The concerns of Yale Students for Financial Aid Reform included Yale’s trailing Harvard and Princeton universities in aid packages, alleged examples of students leaving school because of their inability to pay, and what the group perceives as an information gap between financial aid officers and students about Yale’s policies. Administrators responded to the group’s claims by emphasizing Yale’s financial aid generosity in comparison to the greater pool of higher education institutions, and they also reiterated the school’s commitment to providing the best possible packages for students in need.

SFAR distributed the handouts to those attending a Monday night parents’ reception as well as a financial aid information session and Dean Peter Salovey’s welcome address on Tuesday.

SFAR member Andrew Williamson ’09 said the group did not discourage prefrosh from attending Yale, but rather aims to raise awareness of the perceived problems with Yale’s financial aid policy and possibly create more leverage in lobbying the administration.

“Students coming into Yale are not receiving the full story, [such as the] information that we’re handing out, that I and all the members of the group that I’m working with would like to have had before we came to Yale,” he said. “We’ve had an incredibly positive reception from students and parents. I see this as an act to bridge the fundamental information gap between students at Yale and students who could potentially be coming to Yale, which until now has been solely mediated by the University.”

Chief among the group’s concerns, Williamson said, is that Yale students graduate with higher debt than students who attend Harvard or Princeton. He said SFAR would also like the administration to explain further Yale’s membership in the 568 Group, a collection of universities that have adopted common principles for setting financial aid, as well as instances of students allegedly being told that they would have to leave Yale if they were unable to pay the difference between their aid packages and tuition.

In 2005, the last year for which data is publicly available for all three schools, the average Yale student graduated with $14,306 in debt; for Harvard graduates, the average debt was $8,769; and for Princeton graduates, it was $4,370.

Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said that among major universities, Yale offers one of the most generous financial aid programs in the world. Since Harvard and Princeton do not subscribe to the 568 Group’s principles, he said, it is often difficult to determine why offers from those two schools may differ from Yale’s. Yale does not match students’ financial aid packages from competing schools, sometimes causing students to choose to attend other institutions, but financial aid officers formulate packages on a case-by-case basis and are open to reviewing them, he said.

“The charge of our financial office is to interpret family circumstances as generously as possible, while staying within a set of principles that apply equitably to all,” Brenzel said. “In reviews, when families bring forward relevant information, we can often improve an offer.”

Yale students graduate with the least debt of those at any major private university other than Harvard and Princeton, he said. Yale students’ average debt — which he said was about $13,000 in 2006 — is half the national average of $26,000 for graduates’ debt, Brenzel said. Yale’s spending on financial aid has doubled over the last seven years — from $30 million to $60 million — and the average Yale graduate’s debt has declined by one third, he said.

Harvard’s average student debt burden for those graduating in 2006 was $6,850, according to Harvard’s Web site.

Michelle Castaneda ’09, a member of YSFAR, said the group is hoping for a broad examination of Yale’s financial aid policies.

“Our goal is not just to make some change, such as reducing the student contribution, but to conduct a more systematic overview of what the flaws are in the financial aid department and hopefully have some independent body interview students and find out what the key issues are, and implement reforms,” she said. “People experience these problems individually, and it’s not necessarily public.”

Castaneda mentioned examples of students and their families who were unable to meet their expected contribution levels and had to consider discontinuing their educations.

But Brenzel said such situations are extremely infrequent.

“A family may encounter circumstances that make financing college difficult, despite receiving an equitable determination of need,” he said. “Our financial aid office does truly extraordinary work to explore every possible avenue for students to sustain their enrollment in these circumstances, as many hundreds of current Yale students can and do attest. It is extremely rare that a student fails to graduate from Yale for financial reasons.”

Students and parents generally reacted positively to YSFAR’s platform, saying they were mainly pleased that awareness was being raised about the issue, although the information did not lower Yale in their estimation.

Darcia Tudor, the parent of a Seattle, Wash. prefrosh who is choosing between Yale and Stanford University, said she found many of the group’s claims surprising and especially pertinent in a time when students are graduating with large amounts of debt and are probably considering graduate education as well.

“I think it’s important that we be aware of all aspects of college life as prospective students and parents,” she said. “I think it’s a positive reflection on the institution itself to have students who are committed enough to do this … and also on the attitude of the administration.”

Will Miao, a prospective student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., said the aid packages offered to him by Harvard and Princeton are substantially more generous than Yale’s offer. He said he plans to show Princeton’s package to the Yale financial aid office to try to improve Yale’s offer.

A parent of a prospective student who asked to remain anonymous echoed the concerns of other parents in response to the YSFAR flyer, saying financial difficulties should not prevent students from receiving the many benefits of a Yale education.

“It’s disappointing that a student does so well to get admitted to Yale and then there’s the potential that the victory is snatched away from them over an issue like financial aid,” he said.

A mother of a prefrosh, who also wished to have her name withheld, said she appreciates that the matter of financial aid is being constantly examined. Her daughter has already decided to attend Yale, she said, and receiving the YSFAR handout does not make any difference in her mind about the decision to matriculate.

“The more discussion the better, because it’s not going to hurt that people are looking at an issue,” she said. “I don’t think this makes parents think less of Yale; it just says positive things about the administration and students.”

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