To the Editor:
I often enjoy the Confessions of a Community College Dean column, particularly when Mr. Reed shares the parent perspective of higher education. His “6 Down, 3 to Go” piece, however, has some statements that concern me as someone who oversees an institution’s financial aid office.
First, this: “First, the family contribution is awfully similar for each school so far. Whether that’s a sign of collusion, a reliance on a common formula or just a cruel joke of the universe, they seem not to engage in meaningful price competition. That’s … odd.”
The family contribution does indeed come from a common formula. That of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. While some institutions may make internal adjustments to the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) determined through the FAFSA process, it will be nearly identical at most institutions. This is not any sort of malfeasance on the part of these institutions’ financial aid offices; quite the contrary, it’s evidence that we are using a common (although one could argue flawed) measure.
The second part that gave me pause was his assessment of the fairness (or lack thereof) of merit awards affecting need levels. Again, there is nothing sinister at play. Rather, the presence of the merit award lowers the student’s need. If someone needed $10 to pay for their lunch and was given $5, their need does not remain $10. Likewise, if a student has initial unmet need (the cost of attendance minus the EFC) of $30,000 and is given a $10,000 award (regardless of what it’s called), the student’s need is no longer $30,000….it’s $20,000.
I readily acknowledge that financial aid award packages can be complex, confusing, and quite frankly, intimidating. I understand that even the best explained ones aren’t always clear cut. But as we explore how we can improve education about financial aid and the types of awards students are offered, can we at least do so without casting dispersions on an office that often works very hard and gets little thanks in return?
Executive Vice President of Enrollment Management
University of Charleston