If Penn's financial aid brochures are to be believed, no student graduates in debt and every need is met. However, the reality is messier than that. Some stories have a glossy ending, and some do not. Sometimes, even financial aid comes at a cost.

JOHN 

John’s roots are humble. He describes his family’s financial situation during his youth as “just about broke.” However, his father now earns over $150,000 per year. But this doesn’t mean much to John, because his father refuses to support him financially. He hasn’t received so much as a dollar from his father since he was 15, and he’s worked regularly since 13.

John explains, “even if [my father] were much richer, he wouldn’t support me. That’s how he was raised and it’s how he wants me to be raised.” In John’s most desperate moments, his father’s response was always the same: “You made the decision to go to Penn.”

When John was admitted, that decision seemed like a sound one. Penn’s initial financial aid offer was lacking, but its second one was much better, buoyed by a policy that promises to match another Ivy’s aid offer. Then, John received $10,000 of annual outside scholarships. Everything seemed to fall into place. But when John got to Penn, reality became less rosy.

His scholarships ended up making things a lot more difficult. The $10,000 takes care of what he's expected to pay—not his parents' share, which he pays too—but it also did one crucial thing: it eliminated his work–study eligibility. John was counting on work–study to cover his day–to–day living expenses. He couldn’t find a job at Penn that wasn’t work–study and with no help from SFS, he had to dip into his savings and take out loans to cover expenses like the mandated meal plan for freshmen. He quips, “those eggs at Hill taste a lot worse when you’re paying interest on them.”

By his second semester freshman year, John was “dead broke,” struggling to scrounge up money. By that summer, his budget was “$10 per day—for everything.”

But rock bottom was yet to come. The following fall, John was put on financial aid hold due to a falling out with his father, who refused to send in his tax returns to SFS. With an outstanding application, he was permitted to take classes, but was unable to take out a loan through Penn to cover living expenses. Without that loan, and still without a job, he had no way of getting food, much less books. He couldn’t sleep because he was so hungry. He was put on academic probation.

When his father finally sent in the information, John was in for another struggle—dealing with Penn’s new aid offer. His overall aid was reduced significantly. In one of many meetings with SFS, John says officers said it was justified by his father’s increased income. Penn’s generous freshman year offers suddenly seemed hollow. To John, “it felt like a bait and switch.”

Faced with the prospect of taking out an additional $10,000 in loans, John buckled. “I couldn’t do it. It was too much.” He took a leave of absence and began working full–time doing odd jobs around Philly. He planned to save and come back in the spring, but Penn mandated that he take a full year off. He’s now away from campus, working and saving for the next three years. Even so, he will likely graduate with six figures of debt.

John has cold conclusions about financial aid at Penn. “In their eyes, I’m an issue... that they have to get rid of. There are some great people who work at Penn financial aid,” he says, but “that need–blind aspect—I think it makes Penn blind to the human context.” For John, Penn’s aid algorithms are too inflexible to appreciate the subtleties of individuals’ situations. “This school has billions of dollars. Kids shouldn’t be hungry.”

MICHELLE

Michelle has had several issues with financial aid, from her freshman year to her study abroad semester, but remains resolutely positive about her experience with aid at Penn. Without a doubt, she enjoys a generous financial aid package—her retired father and flight attendant mother would normally have to pay roughly $4,000 per year, but an outside scholarship she earned takes care of her family contribution. She and her family pay essentially nothing for Michelle to attend Penn.

She is also eligible for work–study, a key resource which she describes as the greatest weakness of her financial aid experience. Her freshman year, she exhausted her work–study funding in the fall—she says that “for about two months in spring I didn’t have a job or spending money to do anything.” SFS helped by raising her work–study by $200, but it wasn’t nearly enough to get her through the semester. They suggested taking out a loan, which Michelle was averse to doing.

Her only option was to try her best to make ends meet. “I was on a meal plan so I could still eat, but I just couldn’t go out to eat with friends... I was really broke,” she says. However, she’s quick to add a dash of perspective. “I don’t want to make it sound like I was deprived because I didn’t have a spring fling shirt,” she says. But she’s more aware of the costs of social life at Penn than most.

More than anything, she’s found that her outside scholarship organization has caused far more problems than Penn has. Her scholarship organization sent in more funds than she needed one semester, which reduced Michelle’s work–study funding.

When she went abroad, she was only notified when out of the country that her scholarship organization didn’t fund study abroad. “I think they just made up this rule so they didn’t have to give me money,” she says, and was placed on financial hold by Penn. Dealing with such a complex issue while in a country with limited internet access was a headache—especially because Michelle’s only option, according to SFS, was to take out a loan. “Luckily it worked out,” she says, “but it was pretty annoying that my scholarship fund wouldn’t cover my abroad expenses.”

Despite these issues, Michelle has few complaints. “I want to emphasize the fact that I feel really lucky,” she says. “That although I am broke sometimes, I don’t really have that many outstanding loans, and Penn has been able to support me being here.”

JAMES 

James, a College senior from Colorado, has had plenty of interactions with SFS in his four years at Penn. Financial aid is the only viable way for James’ family (his father is a government geologist and his mother is a preschool teacher) to pay for his Penn education, especially after being hit hard in the 2008 financial crisis. During his time at Penn, he’s received up to $30,000 in Penn Grants—the most common, and substantial, form of need–based, loan–free aid Penn offers. Part of the remainder is paid for by his parents; the rest is covered through loans James has taken out. He estimates he’ll graduate about $20,000 in debt.

For a few reasons, James has seen his aid decline since freshman year. For one, his sister no longer attends a private secondary school, which added over $1,000 to his family contribution. His aid also declined for a more unlikely reason: a generous outside scholarship. In his sophomore year, James won a Foreign Language and Area Studies Scholarship, a $15,000 government grant awarded to students who have excelled in the study of Asia, Africa or the Middle East. For an aspiring Middle East specialist like James, the award was warmly welcomed for its prestige and its generosity. He thought he wouldn’t have to take out additional loans that year.

The year after receiving the scholarship, however, James was surprised to find out that his financial aid had been reduced by $7,000. “It’s like they cut a royalty out of my scholarship,” he says. “I really only saw $8,000 of that money.” That was upsetting enough on its own, but James was taken aback by how it was done. “I had no say in it at all,” he tells me. “My parents were pretty pissed off.”

Despite his debacle with the scholarship and thoughts of dealing with debt after graduating, James feels pretty secure. “I’ve never really felt strained for money,” he says. He’s taken full advantage of work–study, holding a variety of different jobs since his freshman year, from sorting books in the basement of Van Pelt to working one–on–one with professors. To him, work–study has been crucial—not to pay tuition or loans, but to be able to do the normal things college students should, like see a concert or go to a restaurant.

Out of all the times he’s met with financial aid officers and time he’s spent trying to understand the process, James has emerged from his time at Penn relatively ambivalent about his experience with financial aid. He acknowledges its strengths, but finds it hard to get around his negative experience with his government award. His wariness has been fueled by SFS, an office he finds to be particularly non–transparent. James recalls a meeting where a financial aid officer told him, “I could’ve charged you more, but I didn’t.” “Your ‘need’ is dictated,” James says. “It all seemed kind of arbitrary to me.”

SERGIO

Sergio Arrangoiz, a College freshman from Guadalajara, Mexico, never thought a full scholarship at an Ivy League university could be a possibility for him. His father, a factory manager in between jobs, and mother, an office worker, would never be able to afford the tuition and travel expenses associated with attending a place like Penn. But last year, when Sergio received his acceptance letter to Penn, he also found out he’d be receiving a nearly full ride.

That’s because Penn recently revised its financial aid policy regarding Canadian and Mexican citizens. Like other international students, they were previously eligible only for a very limited amount of financial aid. Now, instead of being “need–aware,” admission is “need–blind” for Canadians and Mexicans. It’s a point of pride for Penn, the stuff of glowing press releases. But it’s not so well–publicized in Sergio’s native Mexico.

At Sergio’s high school, it was not common for students to come to the U.S. to study. Sergio himself hadn’t really entertained it as a possibility until representatives from Harvard, Yale and Princeton came to his school to talk about their need–blind admissions policies for Mexican students.

Until then, he says he “didn’t really know anything about universities in America and their financial aid.” Naturally, he turned to Google. That’s how he found Penn. Now that he’s here, he and his family pay roughly $2,000 a year for tuition, housing and meals—Penn takes care of the rest. On top of that, Sergio applied for Penn to cover his travel expenses and was approved. His round–trip journey between Guadalajara and Philadelphia—$1,200, on average—is paid for once a year. Sergio also is eligible for work–study, working about nine hours a week to help pay for some of his day–to–day expenses.

While he’s grateful for these numerous benefits, Sergio didn’t know up front that his aid would be taxed by the federal government. “Students that get financial aid for expenses not strictly related to school—for example, housing or meal plan—that financial aid is taxable,” he explains. It’s a 14% tax, which ends up being a considerable amount of money—$1,500, to be exact. Since his financial aid package gives a little more than he needs, some of it goes to his taxes. The rest of the tax he pays through a $1,000 loan offered through the work–study program.

Overall, Sergio has had a positive experience with financial aid. “They’ve been awesome,” he says, adding, “it’s amazing that they can even do this.” To students like him, for whom studying in the United States is the stuff of dreams, this policy is a gift. People from Mexico “might know about Harvard or Yale, but not Penn,” he says, and they definitely don’t know that Penn offers need–blind admission to Mexican students. “Spreading the message that we’re here, and we’re willing to offer you financial aid, they could work a lot more on that.”

 


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