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The Paying for College Predicament

by Tigerlily Theo Hopson

Photo by Tigerlily Hopson.

When Matilda Molina received her financial aid package for Stony Brook University, one of her top choices, she thought it was a joke. Out of the $28,000 cost to attend, Stony Brook offered her $697 in financial aid.

“I was in shock for days,” Molina, who is a senior at East Side Community High School, said. She wondered how a state school could “give such little money,” especially to a student like her who is left with few financial resources since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Molina is now left in a predicament: she can try to find a way to pay over $21,000 per year for a college degree, or she will have to settle for a school that is not her top pick. Seniors throughout the nation are left in a similar situation, and as National College Decision Day on May 1st approaches, students are pressed to make a decision.

East Side seniors were accepted into an abundant spread of universities, from CUNYs to SUNYs to private and Ivy League colleges. However, many students are now struggling with finding a way to pay for their first choice school.

Yumeno Shimoda, another East Side senior, had to “scratch off” one of her favorite colleges she was accepted to, Fordham University, from her list because the cost would be double of her parent’s annual salary. “That was a ‘no thanks’ moment,” she said.

Twelfth grader Halley Otero “cried happy tears” when she received her acceptance to the Culinary Institute of America, one of the top culinary universities in the nation, but like many of the people in her grade, have concerns about how she is going to pay for it. Her dad thinks she should go to Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) because it is less expensive.

Applying for financial aid in itself is an arduous, befuddling, and time consuming process. Many students at East Side have to to navigate filling out forms such as the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), TAP (Tuition Assistance Program) for schools in New York City, and the CSS profile (College Scholarship Service Profile) for private universities, without the assistance of their guardians.

Twelfth grader Andy Xie described the financial aid process as “a whole monster.” He is deeply grateful for the Director of College Counseling Jerome Furman and the college team for walking him through the process, but it was difficult to learn about financial documents through a Zoom square. Xie did not get help or support from his parents because of the “language barrier” between them; his parents speak Cantonese, and he does not. “It was just so much, so much,” Xie exclaimed with a sigh. “I don’t know how to explain to them what the FAFSA is.”

A heavy burden is placed on low-income and first generation college students. Not only do they have to fill out college applications, write and edit essays, and complete college interviews, but many also have to fill out financial paperwork.

Molina explained that the financial aid process was a “bit more difficult” for her as a first generation college student. Her parents, who are immigrants from Mexico and Italy, are unfamiliar with the U.S. college system, which left Molina to rely solely on Furman and her parents' accountant. “It was very confusing,” she said.

Despite all of the support East Side does provide, some students still felt perplexed and overwhelmed, and wished that in school they were taught how to navigate taxes and these financial aid applications. “Before this I had never even seen a tax form,” Shimoda, who had to complete the financial aid process by herself, said.

The first step for students receiving financial aid letters is to share them with Furman, the director of college counseling, who can help them decipher their packages. For many students the first aid offer they receive is negotiable. Students can appeal, which means they can request that their financial circumstances be reviewed again and that the cost for their family be decreased.

Students or guardians appeal through writing a letter which outlines all of the family’s expenses, details any special circumstances, and why their family should be awarded more aid. Appeals are usually reviewed by a university if a family’s financial situation has changed significantly since they first applied for financial aid or if there is additional information for the college to consider.

Many students are appealing this year because the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted their financial reality because of unemployment or other losses. Families submitted 2019 tax returns in the most recent college application cycle, but for many these will look very different than their 2020 tax returns because of the pandemic, and are an inaccurate view of their finances. This can be brought up in an appeal letter.

Other reasons to appeal would be changes in family size or number of siblings in college, huge medical expenses, or other financial burdens not otherwise expressed in the initial application. Some schools will “match” the financial aid awards offered by other universities. Additionally, students who have been awarded merit scholarships can sometimes appeal through the admissions office to ask for more merit aid.

After the appeal letter is complete, families should find and send the letter to the specific person at the school who handles appeals. Universities will usually review and respond back to the family in seven to ten business days.

Any student can try to appeal, but private colleges are often the most receptive to appeals because they have larger endowments, or in other words, more money. Public schools such as CUNYs and SUNYs often will not accept appeals because the majority of their funding comes from the state and federal government, and they may not have extra money to give to families to cover tuition. “Appeals will nine out of ten times not work for public schools,” Furman said.

Molina emailed Stony Brook in hopes that her expected family contribution could be decreased, but the school said they will not review any financial aid packages again until July, after the deadline to commit to a school is passed.

“It sucks honestly,” Furman said on the topic of SUNY financial aid and appeals. Furman attended Stony Brook University and is a “product” of the SUNY system. “I feel and know that frustration,” he continued. “It’s hard to fill that SUNY gap.”

One potential way students can try to fill that gap is through the The Excelsior Scholarship Program that offers up to $5,500 per year of tuition assistance to CUNY and SUNY students with a combined family income under $125,000. Students must apply for the award within the narrow application window for 2021 that has yet to be announced, but students may sign up now to be notified when the new application becomes available.

CUNY schools can cover the full tuition cost, although this choice means staying in the city and does not include funding for housing. Andy Xie was offered a full ride by his top choices: Hunter, Baruch, and Brooklyn College. He is also considering community college as a “stepping stone,” which would also cover his full tuition. At first, he did not understand his packages, and so his advisor helped him look through the award during a parent teacher conference. After he got off the Zoom call his parents were ecstatic. His mom hugged him, as it sunk in that college would be free for him and his family.

There are many other financial aid options available, including scholarships, work study, and subsidized loans. The scholarship process can be overwhelming, but utilizing scholarship search engines and reaching out to the college counseling team for more resources can lessen the burden. Work study is an option in college where students can work and have the money they make go to paying their student share. Subsidized loans do not accrue interest while an undergraduate college student is at school, and can be a helpful option for some families.

“Everyone's situation is different but look into work study options, part time jobs help too, fill out the TAP application if you’re in New York State, and look for other scholarships,” a East Side alumna and freshman at Fordham advised. She is paying for college through a payment plan that is working well for her family. The CollegeBound Initiative (CBI) has assisted her in renewing her FAFSA which college students have to do every year. Most of all though, “commit to a school you can make the most of,” she recommended.

For more resources and information in reviewing financial aid offers and deciding what college is a good fit, take a look at East Side’s college office Financial Aid Review Guide.

Despite how hopeless paying for college may feel, Furman believes that there is light at the end of the tunnel. “It can be a very small flicker or as bright as the sun,” he said. “It all depends on the decisions students make.”

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