When Kellie Geisel ’24 applied to Yale, she expected that she would be able to attend for free. All of Yale’s financial aid material promised that any family making less than $65,000 a year would receive a $0 parent share financial aid package, and Geisel’s family made below that. So Geisel was shocked when, upon being admitted to Yale, she was presented with a financial aid package that cost more than what her father made in a year.
What Geisel did not realize while applying was that the eligibility threshold of $65,000 — which has since increased to $75,000 in the 2020-21 school year — only exists for families with “typical assets.” Geisel’s family has no second home, nor any serious investments. But Geisel grew up on a 275-acre family farm in rural Indiana, and that made the financial aid office completely revalue her family’s ability to pay tuition.
Geisel’s situation is not unique. According to Director of Undergraduate Financial Aid Scott Wallace-Juedes, farms are considered as an asset similar to a small business. In factoring such assets into a financial aid package, the Financial Aid Office considers five to six percent of the asset’s “adjusted value” — a metric determined by the office — as the amount that a family could contribute to education. That number can add up quickly when considering a large farm and has left farm-owning rural students paying significantly more than non-rural students in the same income bracket.
“Our general philosophy is that we are looking at businesses and farms through a similar lens,” Wallace-Juedes told the News. “We do know that individual families have special circumstances that our aid officers can take into account … but at the end of the day, a farm, like a business, is an asset that a family has, and while it may produce income for the family, it also has some asset value. So that family has some financial strength to be able to contribute to college.”
Although some farms can bring in significant income, Geisel told the News that her situation is different because her father works a full-time factory job. Her family lives on the farm, but it serves as a quasi-retirement fund rather than as a daily source of income. When Geisel’s father retires from manufacturing, he will have no pension, and therefore the farm will act as their financial security.
But instead of viewing her farm as a retirement fund, the University instead views all farms as assets. Geisel therefore feels that the Financial Aid Office has significantly overvalued her family’s wealth.
Geisel was ultimately able to appeal her financial aid award and reduce the parent share by half by talking to the Financial Aid Office — a process that all families are welcomed and encouraged to take advantage of, Wallace-Juedes told the News. But Geisel’s package still costs over a third of all the income that her family makes in a year, including from their farm. She has taken out loans to pay for her college tuition.
“When looking at low-income, high-asset individuals, Yale doesn’t really make space for rural students,” Geisel said. “My parents think we have a good deal [at Yale.] And I don’t know how to explain to them that most people from where I’m from, and most people from this income background, are here for free.”
Over quarantine, Geisel started asking around to see if others were experiencing the same issues. She found several people who described similar experiences.
Clayton Land ’22, the president of the Rural Students Association, explained that the organization is currently focused on building a community of rural students at Yale, particularly to support students during their college transitions. Conversations about the unique experiences of rural students — including financial aid stories like Geisel’s — have percolated throughout the organization.
In the long term, Land indicated that he would like to see the organization work with the Yale College Council to address the unique financial barriers that rural students encounter.
Elea Hewitt ’22 grew up in a family of farmers. She lives on a 100-acre farm in rural Oregon, where her parents tend livestock and run a home garden while working other daytime jobs. What income the farm produces is solely made through meat and egg sales.
“The farm operates at a loss, since the income we receive selling meat doesn’t cover mortgage and general operating expenses throughout the year,” Hewitt explained.
Although she said that her financial aid package is comparatively generous, she suggested that the intricacies of owning land may be lost by financial aid calculations.
“We have to take out much more in loans than what the Office [of Financial Aid] estimates,” she said. “On paper, yes, our assets and holdings are valued at a certain amount, but we aren’t necessarily retaining the income. We don’t have that money in hand, it’s in the land — and we can’t necessarily take it out to pay the bills.”
Wallace-Juedes told the News that the Financial Aid Office factors in debt and operating losses when calculating the value of a farm, and added that the office is always willing to evaluate farm-owning students’ packages on a case-by-case basis. Wallace-Juedes himself grew up in a farming town in rural Nebraska, and he said that he is “grateful” for the chance to engage with rural families should they need to convey extra information.
But Geisel told the News that though the Financial Aid Office can be accommodating after rural students are admitted to Yale, it is wrong that this information is not conveyed during the application process.
“They advertise this amount, where if your family makes under that then you can go for free,” Geisel said. “And so that’s kind of why I applied, because my family said ‘Oh, well, you have to, because if you get in, you go for free.’ And that’s not necessarily true, which is okay. But they can’t continue to market it like that, because that just feels unethical.”
As of 2019, more than 50 percent of students received need-based financial aid from Yale.
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