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On Their Own: Making It Add Up

Despite changes, students criticize policy on financial independence

By Laura L. Krug, Crimson Staff Writer

As late as the end of October 2002, Alexandra Neuhaus-Follini, originally a member of the class of 2004, thought she would be enrolled in Harvard College for the spring semester.

Neuhaus-Follini says when she began the process of declaring financial independence from her parents last August, administrators assured her that a new, more flexible financial aid policy would soon take effect.

The policy would replace an old set of guidelines that mandated a two-year leave from Harvard for students seeking to have their financial aid package calculated without consideration of their parents’ finances.

But now, five months later, Neuhaus-Follini is still not enrolled—and won’t be until spring 2004. The reason, she says, is a financial aid policy that is still not expansive enough to account for specific situations of financial independence.

She points to a clause that demands that students undergo mediation sessions geared toward reconciliation with their parents.

Unlike most financially independent students, Neuhaus-Follini’s separation from her parents was her own decision and she is not interested in mediation. This, she says, ultimately bars her from financial aid eligibility.

Neuhaus-Follini declined to discuss her reasons for seeking independance from her parents for this article.

“If it wasn’t your choice, then it’s possible that you would want mediation. You might want to reconcile,” she said. “But mediation should be voluntary.”

Financial aid officials, however, say they are doing their best to help independent students secure financial aid—but only after they are sure they’ve done everything possible to try to bring about a reconciliation.

“My hopes are this new policy will make it possible for those very few students who are caught up in really difficult situations to not have to leave the fold of the community,” says Sally C. Donahue, director of financial aid.

But the mediation is an integral part of helping students deal with those difficult situations, Donahue says.

“Sometimes our hope is that, with the help of a trained counselor, the student and his or her parents might be able to move past what might seem like an irreconcilable difference of opinion.”

The University does not want to encourage students to rush into a decision as drastic as separating from their parents, officials say.

“We do recognize that there are always two sides to a conflict and insist that we have the opportunity to have dialogue with the family and the student,” Richard D. Kadison, director of mental health services at University Health Services (UHS), writes in an e-mail. “This is the only way to get a complete picture of the conflict. If the student prefers not to do that, they always have the option of following the existing policy.”

But members of the Undergraduate Council and the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA) say students like Neuhaus-Follini could be penalized by the policy.

BGLTSA members say the new guidelines fall short of helping all of the students that need its protection.

And the Undergraduate Council recently passed a resolution urging the University to mitigate the mediation requirement by exempting students from the sessions in cases where mediation is clearly not a desirable option, such as in cases of abuse.

‘Lack of Communication’

The original financial aid policy required students seeking independent status to take two years away from Harvard and return with $8000 to go toward their education.

The new policy, however, demands neither time off from school nor a financial contribution from the student.

This revised set of guidelines was completed and approved in early October, and Neuhaus-Follini says she entered the process of applying for aid under its regulations before the financial aid committee completed it.

She says repeated requests for a copy of the policy were frustrated.

“They kept telling me, ‘It’s not done. It’s still pending approval,’” she says.

Neuhaus-Follini says she received a copy of the new policy on Oct. 28 and learned for the first time about the mediation requirement.

The process ground to a halt, she says, after she refused to undergo mediation and was not granted an exemption.

As a result, she was required to instead apply for financial aid under the old guidelines and extend her absence for an additional three semesters.

Financial officials declined to discuss the specifics of Neuhaus-Follini’s case.

Neuhaus-Follini criticizes what she describes as a lack of communication and understanding on the part of counselors and other officials, and, most glaringly, the mediation requirement.

“The policy is bad enough, but it also brings to light all these other deficiencies in the school,” says Neuhaus-Follini. “There’s no communication and no support.”

A Troubled History

Some students began to mount vocal opposition to the financial aid policy for independent students last year when a prominent member of the gay community took a two-year leave from Harvard pending independent status.

Led by members of last year’s BGLTSA and Girlspot boards, students met with administrators in the financial aid office and with University President Lawrence H. Summers to try to change the policy.

The issue is particularly salient to the gay community, according to Fred O. Smith ’04, one of the students who met with administrators last year to try to change the policy.

“It can affect a wide range of people,” said Smith. “However, one of the groups I think it most strongly impacted would be the gay community because when someone goes off to college, sexual identity is something they begin to discover about themselves and there’s a very strong risk of disownment.”

After the group spent several months lobbying, the Financial Aid Committee decided to rework the policy.

“There was a sense of a number of students who felt that perhaps it was not as helpful as it could be,” Donahue says. “That’s when we started meeting with people from a range of different offices.”

Donahue also notes that the policy was last scrutinized 15 years ago and due for review.

And, over the summer, officials from UHS, the Bureau of Study Counsel, a representative from the senior tutors, the admissions office and the financial aid office hashed out the details of the plan.

Under the new policy, students can receive financial aid without taking time off, provided they agree to counseling and mediation with staffers from UHS or the Bureau of Study Counsel.

“The express purpose of this consultation will be to gain an understanding of the nature and extent of the alienation from the parent(s) and hopefully to engage in a mediated dialogue with him/her/them to try to resolve the impasse,” the new policy states.

Moreover, it requires that part of the counseling be dedicated to bringing together the student and his or her parents in order to see if reconciliation is a possibility.

According to the new policy, “It is important to stress that this requirement assumes a willingness on the part of the student to engage in such a mediated dialogue with his/her parent(s) if this is deemed appropriate by the counselor.”

In Search of Resolution

The Undergraduate Council, after internally debating the issue for some time, is currently urging the University to change the policy’s mediation requirement so that it will allow for exceptions in particular cases, such as those involving abuse.

Last month, the council passed a resolution asking that the financial aid office to change its rules so that mediation would “not be required in cases of abuse as identified by an impartial, independent, University-appointed psychologist,” contact between parents and students would “not be required in cases of abuse” and the previous policy for securing financial independence would “not be offered as an alternative,” as was the case with Neuhaus-Follini.

Council President Rohit Chopra ’04 says that each case should be considered individually.

“There are a lot of problems with people who come out to their parents,” Chopra says. “There are cases of abuse or other circumstances. It’s about making sure that the committee on financial aid gives really close attention to these factors.”

—Staff writer Laura L. Krug can be reached at krug@fas.harvard.edu.

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