Feeling the Pinch Where it Hurts

Some Aid Packages Contain a Nasty Surprise

When the budget for paying college tuition is tight--as both national and personal budgets this year are notorious for being--even a small extra expense can spell disaster. And the matter seemed anything but small this summer when Scott Weiner '84, a financial aid recipient, found that Harvard expected him to pay $242 more every month than he paid last year. In fact, for a while he thought the barrier would prove insurmountable. "I don't know what will happen," he says now, though he is returning to school to try. "I don't think there's any way I can earn what they say I can."

Weiner, who describes his economic situation as "right in the middle ground"--his father is an Internal Revenue Service employee and his mother a secretary--is one of quite a few under-graduates who are finding their financial aid arrangements unexpectedly tight as the year begins.

Students, parents and trend-conscious educators breathed sighs of relief last winter when Harvard College made it clear that, despite ever-rising costs and brutal budget cuts, it would hold fast to the practice of admitting all qualified applicants and offering all the needy ones full "need-based" aid packages to meet the school's skyrocketing fees.

But many forgot that "full aid based on need," far from being a constant amount, is defined largely by just how much need Harvard calculates you to have. That need is the difference between costs and a formula-calculated family contribution. While the formulas haven't been altered, the contribution can fluctuate wildly as family situations change. And it was this figure, as the year's adjusted aid packages began arriving in midsummer, that caused some unpleasant surprises and forced some serious reevaluation among upperclassmen of whether they can pay what Harvard asks.

Some students are angry or bitter at unexpected burdens, and a few accuse the aid office of passing costs to them or counting on upperclassmen to scrimp and survive the last year or two, rather than leave. Others blame the federal cuts and the new limitations on Guaranteed Student Loans (GSL) for the crunch and are relieved that their packages will still get them by. The common denominator, though, is a feeling of fear, of near-escape. Everyone, it seems, has heard vaguely that some students cannot afford to come back. No one knows just who.


"It seems obvious to me that despite what they're saying, things are getting tougher and it's mostly hitting upperclassmen," says Christina Spaulding '84, who had all of a $3000 scholarship replaced by "self-help"--jobs and recommended loans--this year. She, like Weiner, was told that the adjustment came because her family's income went up, but she says that the two factors don't nearly balance out.

"It'll be difficult [to pay], and it'll get harder and harder, but we'll do it," she says. "Once you've been here for two years you're not going to leave."

But another type of leave taking may prove inevitable for some--taking the fruits of advanced standing to avoid a rough senior-year aid package. Weiner, who entered with advanced standing with a just-in-case attitude, soon decided he would stay the fourth year. Now, though he "hates the thought" of leaving, he says senior year "is looking a lot less likely."

Spaulding, like some others whose packages have swung heavily over to jobs and loans rather than outright grants, says she feels "betrayed" because she originally chose to attend Harvard partly because of its attractive aid package. Last year the aid office-recommended she take out a loan in addition to the grant. She managed to do without it, but says if she had taken it. "I don't see how they expected me to borrow any more this year."

And Susan Damplo '83, who lost a $3100 scholarship to self-help because a sibling had finished college, agrees that "If I'd known they were going to do this to me when I was applying, I'm sure I'd have given it a lot more thought."

Financial aid officers, though, say their formulas have always tended to create larger and larger self-help contributions as students move up. For instance, a student's expected summer-earnings contribution (slightly up this year) increases in a set pattern: Rising freshmen and sophomores must save and contribute $900, juniors $950, and seniors $1000. And this year, with total expenses rising $1600 from last year, an agreed-upon $300 was passed on to each student's self-help package along with other adjustments, according to Elizabeth M. Hicks, associate director of financial aid. "We are not pulling the rug out from under anyone," she says.

The formulas by which need is adjusted have also remained unchanged, says Acting Financial Aid Director Seamus P. Malin. Malin, an assistant admissions dean who is filling in this year on the aid-office post he held six years ago, says the level of panic and of appeals for reevaluation is about the same as he remembers--as is the number of students who actually drop out for economic reasons. Of these, the aid office sees "only the really dramatic ones, maybe ten a year," Malin says, while the Ad Board handles the rest. And of these, Malin draws a distinction between those who leave for financial reasons alone and those "for whom the economic factor is the last straw."

Malin joins most observers, however, in detecting a much higher level of "aid anxiety," which may be more than usually active in making families "interpret the decision [to cut aid] as a personal one." But those noticing it far more are the admissions officers--who this year saw financial reasons cited by 45 percent of those turning down Harvard--and Hicks, who counsels those same prospective freshmen and their parents. Between confusion over new procedures and worry over long-term aid prospects, "there was never a point in the year where you felt everything had resolved itself," Hicks recalls.

William R. Fitzsimmons '67, director of admissions, found in one Class of '86 accepted what he calls the "classic, extreme" demonstration of aid anxiety. The student's family applied for aid, saying they were middle-income and had put a great many children through college. Their forms, Fitzsimmons says, showed annual assets of approximately $600,000. And they not only appealed the aid office's refusal: they wrote, telephoned and angrily visited before giving up on Harvard altogether in favor of a "full ride" at another school. For Fitzsimmons, the incident indicated not only the extent of aid anxiety but also the "economic segregation" his office must attempt to bridge with scholarship money. "After all," he says, "in their neighborhood maybe they are middle-income."

But money also turned students away from Harvard in more conventional ways. The poll of those going elsewhere, distributed this year for the first time and not yet fully analyzed, showed money was about twice as important a deterrent among Blacks as among the group as a whole, a statistic that may reflect the sharp drop in the proportion of Blacks who chose to enter this year's class. The flow of students to all-expenses-paid scholarships (such as the Morehead at Chapel Hill, which includes graduate school) was substantial: other students opted for six-year medical programs to ensure the same sort of security. And Fitzsimmons says at least two students went to state schools on full scholarships to save money for a less academically able younger sibling, in case the latter should prove unable to get a comparable scholarship anywhere.