Regina Sung

In the summer before her sophomore year, Lydia Burleson ’21 received a tuition bill three times her mother’s yearly income.

Burleson, an FGLI student on a $0 parent share financial aid package, knew that the bill was a mistake. She was still terrified: The Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid requested that she produce IRS documentation, and said that if she did not, she would have to pay the full amount. She worried that she would have to drop out if she could not get the document in time.

“I had hoped that Yale would eventually fix the bill,” Burleson said. “But I felt that because full-aid students are so few in the Yale student body population, that [the Yale administration] might not even care about the fact that some of us have to deal with this, which just made me feel like even less a part of the community than I already did, because the community is so affluent. So it was very isolating, and overwhelming.”

Burleson eventually turned in the form and received her financial aid award. But the same bill faced her the next summer. She told the News that she is always careful about filling out the FAFSA and all other major financial aid forms, and was frustrated that her missing forms were ones that Yale never told her she needed. During the summer before her senior year, Burleson checked her financial aid portal weekly to make sure no new forms could slip through the cracks. 

In the past weeks, the News spoke to 13 students about their experiences with Yale financial aid, both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have fielded mischarges and aid package delays; others have been denied emergency financial support, and still more have felt dismissed or unsupported by the Financial Aid Office. 

In interviews with the News, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid Jeremiah Quinlan and Director of Undergraduate Financial Aid Scott Wallace-Juedes said that the Undergraduate Financial Aid Office is committed to its mission of making a Yale College education affordable for all students. Both told the News that the ongoing pandemic has complicated the office’s work, but that they are proud that Yale has not had to compromise the size of financial aid packages this year.

“Paying for college and understanding need-based aid — which is, by its nature, complex — is often stressful,” Quinlan wrote in an email to the News. “The uncertainties and shifts associated with the pandemic have only added to this complexity and associated stress. I am proud that Yale has instituted sensible, generous, and flexible policies to maintain our commitment to affordability during this unusual year.”

Full bills and no aid 

Two days before Yamil Rivas ’23 moved onto campus for the spring semester, she noticed an outstanding charge of $36,000 on her spring-term bill.

Rivas, a QuestBridge and Gates Scholar who attends Yale with a $0 parent share financial aid package, also knew that the charge was incorrect. But since she could not see her accurate adjusted award, she had no way to tell how much she was being charged for room and board. Rivas worried that she would move to campus and be forced to move out if her award did not adequately cover rooming costs. 

She was able to contact the Financial Aid Office and confirm her correct award right before returning to campus. But she still thinks about what might have happened had she not been able to do so.

“If I hadn’t been so outspoken and assertive, I might have moved on to campus and then when the offer was finally processed in February, if it was not enough I would have just had to move back home,” Rivas said. 

In addition to Rivas, the News spoke to four students who were either mischarged or had their bills delayed for the 2021 spring semester. Screenshots obtained by the News of an FGLI first-year student group chat showed them exchanging photos of the mischarges in their accounts after the spring term bills were released. Some charges exceeded $37,450 — a full spring-term bill — due to processing errors.

In an email to the News in early December, Wallace-Juedes said that these issues are typical at the beginning of each term, “as students work to finalize their plans for the upcoming term and as we work to reconcile administrative systems.” Wallace-Juedes added that this term presented special challenges, as some students changed their residency status from one semester to the other, thus affecting the size of their financial aid package.

Emma Wallner ’24, who took a leave of absence in the fall and returned to Yale as a sophomore this spring, checked her bill in December and noted that no award had been added. The Financial Aid Office informed her that there were general delays, especially with students who had taken leaves of absence in the fall, and that she did not have to pay by the Jan. 1 deadline.

When the first weeks of January passed and Wallner had still not received her partial financial aid award, she said the situation became “very stressful.” She eventually received her award exactly one week before her return to campus.

“I mean, [my family and I] were kind of laughing about the whole thing, like, ‘What happens if I turn up to campus and just haven’t paid?’” Wallner said. “Nobody likes to see a full bill sitting in their account when they don’t typically pay a full bill.”

Some of the frequent unaccounted charges can be attributed to missing forms, such as in Burleson’s case, but there is no system in place to notify students of any new forms that they need to fill out. A student cannot receive their financial aid award until they have filled out all necessary paperwork.

Although Clayton Land ’22 acknowledged that he filled out his required financial aid forms after the due date in the spring of his first year, the number tacked onto his account for his sophomore fall still reflected the full cost of tuition, as well as room and board well into August. Even though Land expected his financial aid package to be resolved, the uncertainty was still “terrifying.”

“It was stress-inducing and a big hassle to call financial aid all the time, though it eventually worked out,” Land said.

For the most part, these kinks are smoothed over as clerical errors and processing delays — blips in a system that works to ensure that more than 60 percent of Yale students can afford the steep costs of attendance. Wallace-Juedes told the News that although the Financial Aid Office is constantly working to fix these administrative errors, it has proven difficult to eliminate them entirely given the volume of information that they process each semester. He added that the issue was exacerbated this year due to COVID-19 and students’ shifts in learning locations, and he hopes that the process will become more smooth once the University returns to some semblance of normalcy.

But even minor administrative discrepancies can produce weeks of limbo and distress. 

Python Chen ’23 recalled the feeling of “staring at a really large number in the face” when his financial aid package was also delayed last year. Chen expected to see a financial aid credit on his account; seeing a large balance came as a surprise.

In the four semesters that he’s been at Yale, he faced that number twice.

‘A clear lack of empathy’

Beyond mischarges and delayed aid packages, Burleson and Javier Portillo GRD ’22 told the News that their communication with the financial aid offices left them feeling dismissed and misunderstood.

Portillo, a doctoral candidate in the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences who identifies as FGLI, was admitted to Yale in 2016 with a national fellowship that would cover all costs associated with his studies. At the time, he was working at the Yale School of Medicine and living paycheck to paycheck, and reached out to the Graduate Financial Aid Office about ways to receive aid before his fellowship took effect in the fall. 

When speaking to the Financial Aid Office about his situation, an officer told him to ask his mother for money to help him make it through the summer. ‘Just go ask your parents for a few thousand dollars to hold you out; you’re going to be fine,’ Portillo remembers the officer saying. 

Recalling the story made Portillo emotional, as he said that it exemplified just how out of touch the office was. Portillo finds it difficult to tell people about his FGLI status, and to do so and then still see the Financial Aid Office assume that he was in a position in which he could ask his parents for money was “deeply offensive,” Portillo said.

“They have no idea — even when you tell them, they can’t understand what it means to live in poverty; they don’t get it,” Portillo said. “And it’s not because they’re bad people. It’s just that you won’t get it unless you have lived it. So when I say, ‘There is no money,’ when I say, ‘My parents cannot provide me money,’ I mean it.”

Portillo is currently facing a grant delay that the Financial Aid Office promised him he would receive in December. Information has come to him through convoluted email chains, ping-ponging him from his department registrar to the Graduate Financial Aid Office to the Office of Sponsored Projects.

When he asked if he could have a Zoom call with the three different officers who appear to be involved with his grant, his request was declined.

“It’s never their fault; it’s always some error in the system,” Portillo said. “If there are hold ups in financial aid or in grants and they just communicated that to you, I would be fine with that. Instead of telling me about clerical errors or issues in the system, just talk to me. Just have a conversation.”

University Director of Financial Aid Caesar Storlazzi and the Graduate Financial Aid Office did not return multiple requests for comment on Portillo’s experience.

Burleson recalls interactions with the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid that she said felt similarly rushed.

This fall, Burleson submitted a request for a letter confirming her financial status so that she could get a fee waiver for graduate school applications. After a week went by, she contacted the office. Rather than checking on her request, the financial aid officer to whom she spoke chastised her for turning in the form so late, saying that it was in the queue and that nothing more could be done.

“It really upset me, because I knew this person didn’t even realize how rude he was being to me,” Burleson said. “How would he know that nobody in my family has gone to college, and that there’s definitely no one in my family who has a graduate degree?  I have no guidelines on what to do; I just learned about it myself, and I did it as quickly as I could. And so there was just like no sympathy, or at least understanding.”

According to Wallace-Juedes, a “significant number” of financial aid officers were either first-generation or low-income college students. He added that all undergraduate financial aid staff participated in diversity, equity and inclusion training this fall, which he said was “very productive.”

Nevertheless, Burleson told the News that she left that interaction deeply upset. At the advice of her residential college dean, Burleson contacted the office once again a few days later. This time, she spoke with another officer, who checked on her request and found out that it had been mistakenly archived. 

Had Burleson not called back, the request would have never been viewed or fulfilled. 

When the Safety Net doesn’t catch you 

The Yale College Safety Net was officially launched in September 2018 to provide financial support to undergraduate students for unexpected emergencies. Then, the program was seen as a centralized resource to ensure a more equitable distribution of aid, in comparison to a less formal means of requesting ad hoc emergency funds via residential college heads and deans. 

The initiative, financed by the Yale College Dean’s Office, the Office of Student Affairs and residential colleges, has funded 61 percent of student requests since its inception, according to Assistant Dean of Yale College Rebekah Westphal, who helps oversee the program through the Center for International and Professional Experience. Westphal indicated that the success rate of applications has increased over the pandemic, with a 78 percent success rate last March.

Students may apply for an emergency financial allocation, which they do not have to pay back, in a finite number of categories. Those include winter clothing, technology, emergency travel, pre-arrival/departure expenses, books and academic supplies, costs associated with participating in Yale College Ensembles, job and national fellowship interview expenses, request for support during school breaks and other emergency essential items. The Safety Net also may cover emergency medical expenses “beyond insurance coverage” for high-need students.

Three students said that the strict parameters of Safety Net funding has resulted in seemingly arbitrary restrictions on how allocations can be disbursed.

Alejandro Ortega ’23, an FGLI student on leave this semester whose financial aid package also grants him access to Yale Health’s Student Hospitalization and Specialty Care coverage, paid $500 for a dental cleaning and filling. He applied for a Safety Net and was denied.

When Burleson broke a tooth in 2019, the Financial Aid Office recommended that she should submit a Safety Net request. Since Yale Health Student Hospitalization and Specialty Care Coverage generally does not cover the costs associated with adult dental care, Burleson’s health insurance could not help blunt the costs of the medical bill. But an “arduous process” left her exchanging emails with the Financial Aid Office for months.

“I was literally having pain in my mouth because of this,” Burleson said. “The Safety Net is a program that’s supposed to be championing the first-gen, low income students here. And it was completely useless to me at that moment.”

During remote classes last semester, Chen had to work from an old, frequently malfunctioning laptop.

He filed a Safety Net request to pay for a local repair technician to salvage the computer  — which cost him upwards of $400 out of pocket. It took him about two weeks to be reimbursed, and even then, he only received a partial grant of around $200, which applied the costs of the replacement motherboard but not the cost of labor.

“Luckily I was living with roommates, so they could cover me until I got reimbursed,” he said. “But I can easily imagine a situation where $200 was my food money for two weeks.” 

According to Dean Burgwell Howard, the Safety Net does not provide reimbursements for students to purchase new equipment, but focuses on repair and the distribution of loaner equipment.

Over November break in 2019, after Burleson’s luggage was stolen, she revisited the portal to submit a request for warm winter clothes. No one responded. “I never even got a rejection,” Burleson said.

Chen added that he tends to avoid all the small grants offered through resources like the FGLI community newsletters because so much red tape can constrain their uses. “Sometimes the trouble is not worth the money, even though I can really use it,” he said.

When Chen, who also needed to purchase a warm coat for his first New England winter last year, went online shopping with his sister, he assumed that the Winter Clothing Grant would cover his costs.

“I went to the bursar, and it turns out that you need a paper receipt to get the winter coat grant,” he said. “Everything was ready. Online documentation was there, the coat was there.”

Without a paper receipt, the grant fell through. Chen paid for the coat himself.

A ‘ubiquitous’ story

The Undergraduate Financial Aid Office disbursed an average need-based scholarship of $55,100 to students last year; at least five students interviewed by the News indicated that, despite challenges navigating the financial aid system at Yale, they were also grateful for the financial support it provides.

But when the office is prone to errors and delays — like during the shuffle between semesters — then students in precarious financial circumstances can get caught under its wheels. And seemingly arbitrary delays and unclear requirements have made students wary about approaching the office that backs their enrollment.

“Multiple YCC members talked to the Financial Aid Office in 2019, and we ended up running in circles,” said Sarah Pitafi ’22, who is the Yale College Council’s equity chair.  “If this is what it’s like even when you’re student representatives with some policy know-how, it is really daunting to have to face the Financial Aid Office yourself. There’s got to be a better job done of facilitating proper communication — FGLI students should be allowed to ask for things and allowed to ask for better.”

Conversations about financial aid are held regularly among his friend circle, Chen added, and he has become accustomed to facing complications with his financial aid award. This was a sentiment shared by others interviewed by the News — most observed that their friends who had dealt with the financial aid offices had run into similar problems.

“Every single student I have talked to about these issues has some kind of similar story to tell me,” Burleson said. “The people who need and rely on the Financial Aid Office the most are the ones who have their mental health affected the most. Which is just really sad, because there’s no reason for it.”

Amelia Davidson | amelia.davidson@yale.edu

Emily Tian | emily.tian@yale.edu