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Fix Brandeis’ deeply flawed financial aid system

Recently, I spoke to an old family friend who is currently attending the University of Tulsa, and the topic eventually steered itself to financial aid and how we were managing with our loans and paying for our schools. She confessed to me that her mother was short roughly $2,700 for the new year, with no way to pay the balance. In a surprising twist, she told me that when she spoke to their Office of Admission and Financial Aid and told them of some extenuating circumstances regarding a condition her mother had that impeded her ability to work, there was zero pushback. They immediately approved an increase in her financial aid, no loans or appeals process required. The simplicity of this came as a complete shock to me, and only furthered many of the frustrations that I currently feel with Brandeis’ own Student Financial Services.

The process of applying for financial aid at Brandeis is strenuous. Rather than solely relying on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the tax returns of whoever is providing financial support for the student in question, SFS additionally asks for the completion of a CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE and the tax returns of both living biological parents. This in and of itself can present a burden for certain students, as the PROFILE comes with a filing fee of $25. For many of us this is a trivial amount. However it can prove to be difficult for students who have limited financial resources. Keep in mind that most, if not all, of the information that students are asked to provide through the PROFILE is already given on the FAFSA.

Secondly, there is a certain absurdity in requiring students to provide tax returns for both parents. Many students have parents who have separated, with one parent providing little, if any, financial support for the student. Why then would the income of the non-custodial parent be calculated toward the amount of aid the student should receive? SFS is essentially saying, “We know only one of your parents is paying for your school, but you still have two parents, and the other one is making some amount of money, so that has to be calculated into your aid package regardless of whether or not any of that is actually going to be going toward you or your education.” Also, keep in mind that with a separation or divorce comes the need for a non-custodial PROFILE, with another $25 filing fee.

Additionally, SFS seems to have a tendency to punish students for wanting to work in the summer to be able to either aid their parents or have their own savings to rely upon. Social media feeds are filled with stories of students whose aid has been dramatically cut due to summer employment. Why should the department that is supposedly there to make sure we can afford Brandeis’ ever-increasing tuition punish students for working hard or trying to alleviate some of the burden placed on the parents? This is made even worse by the fact that tuition aid is also dramatically cut for students who live off campus, and that mandatory meal plans are now in place for every on-campus student, even when some residences, like Ridgewood, contain kitchens, which make these meal plans completely redundant.

All this would perhaps be slightly less odious if it weren’t for two things: the absurdity of the appeals process and the constant and often unnecessary increases in tuition. To appeal for more financial aid, a myriad of documents has to be submitted to SFS, and even then there is no guarantee that any further aid will be given. One option is, however, always presented: loans. Subsidized Stafford loans, unsubsidized Stafford loans, Saval loans and so on and so forth.

Brandeis has an endowment of $915.1 million, and the FY 2015 financial statement for the university shows that it has total assets valued at approximately $1.5 billion. Brandeis itself claims that roughly 50 percent of the student body receives need-based financial aid. Even if every one of these roughly 1,805 students were to receive all $65,804 necessary to attend from Brandeis itself, this amounts to $118,776,220, a fraction of the total endowment and assets of the university. Are we really to believe that a university with these resources has no option but to force its students to take out loans, rather than provide the aid themselves? We could, but that would also force us to turn a blind eye to the fact that the university has increased tuition by 3.9 percent for the 2016-17 academic year, after an increase of 3.7 percent for the 2015-16 academic year.

Both emails announcing and explaining the hikes are incredibly vague, often citing renovations across campus as a reason. However, tuition has yet to decrease following renovations, many of which are largely unnecessary. For example, part of the increase for the 2015-16 academic year included an expansion of Einstein Bros and the Bookstore to “dramatically improve” service at this area. However, almost hilariously, little to no actual change was seen and the area remains as swamped and inefficient as ever. Additionally, a rooftop patio was constructed for the Stein, which as of publication, remains closed and inaccessible, with no indication given as of yet for when it will actually be ready for student use.

None of this should be taken to mean that I hate Brandeis. I, like many, find Brandeis to be a second home where I have created meaningful relationships with people. However, families should not have to be forced to take out loans or even a second mortgage to send their children to Brandeis when the university already has the necessary resources to assist them. Simply put, the current system is deeply flawed and puts more burden and stress on students and their families than is necessary. For SFS and the Brandeis administration to show that they do actually feel a commitment to assist their students, they need to review the current process and provide a comprehensive reform of it. They need to accept and understand that not all students are able to depend on both biological parents for assistance, that loans are not the magic, one-size-fits-all solution they make it out to be, that the PROFILE is redundant and its filing fee negatively impacts students with already limited financial resources and that affording an education really shouldn’t be this damn difficult.

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