Financial Aid Fluctuations Frustrate Students

Students report having their aid reduced without explanation, confusion among staff

“My initial reaction was sheer panic.” “I was confused and upset.” “Honestly, I was very frustrated and disappointed.” 

This is a sample of some initial reactions students had to seeing their financial aid awards this year. While every new school year brings changes in financial aid awards to many students, this year seemed to hit Reedies especially hard, with many students turning to social media to voice their frustrations. Some Reedies reported unexpected increases in their aid awards; however, many more lamented sudden drops in aid that left them scrambling to pay tuition and wondering what had gone wrong in their aid applications. The Quest sat down with some of these students to discuss their experiences.

One characteristic case is that of Abhi Rajshekar. When he received his financial aid award this year, he was surprised to find that his Reed Grant had been reduced. While a campus work-study had suddenly appeared in his award package, it didn’t make up for the sharp decline in need-based grant money. “I wrote directly to the office,” he said, and luckily he was able to find some answers. “It was another counselor who prepared my package this year, which is why it was vastly different.” Abhi seemed to have been moved to Sandy Sundstrom’s list, the director of the financial aid office. After bringing the matter up with his previous counselor, Jessica Kelly, “[Kelly] reversed the changes and my new package was almost as similar as what I’d received.” But resolving the issue didn’t change the initial panic that Rajshekar felt, or provide him with a sense of closure. “I didn’t appreciate how I had to prove to them that I was still low-SES and needed the same amount of money to go here. The numbers don’t lie. Why would I make them up or not believe them?”

Other students found answers to be few and far between. One student, who wished to remain anonymous, reported being bounced around at every turn. “I emailed and called a few times with unhelpful responses that only came after I made more follow-up emails and calls. No one told me why my aid was lowered, and they told me I shouldn’t submit a request for reconsideration because I probably wouldn’t be granted more aid.” Their family’s finances had taken a significant hit in the past year, but they were offered less aid than last year. While their appeal for aid was eventually granted, “I never got any reasoning as to why my aid was ever lowered and not commensurate with the increase in tuition.” When they reached out to their financial aid counselor Shirley Johnson about their chances if they appealed their aid award, she simply “pasted the list of considered circumstances that is on FA’s website in her email reply without any other input or detail.”

Confusion for both students and financial aid counselors is a running theme in these stories. Unda March, for example, had still not received her award by July 16th, even though awards for returning students were supposed to be disbursed in early June. So, being in Portland over the summer, she took a quick trip to the financial aid office. She met with her counselor Trina Paniagua, who pulled up her financial aid profile. “It seemed like she had been stuck on something,” she said, adding that Jessica Kelly “jumped into the conversation and walked Trina through my profile.” While she was able to physically go to the financial aid office and help work through her counselor’s confusion, she also felt bad for those who didn’t have that option. “Because I was stressing out and could go to the office, I hoped that everyone who couldn’t do that wasn’t as worried as me.”

This confusion is also mirrored in Tess Buchannan’s story. When she received her financial aid award for this upcoming year, during which she is studying abroad for a semester, she realized the costs were much higher than she had expected. “I couldn’t afford the bill, couldn’t take out that many loans, and thought I would have to cancel the study abroad trip/take the semester off,” she explained. But on closer inspection she caught the problem: “they had billed me for a board plan and dorm room I wouldn’t be in.” Slip-ups like these, beyond causing students acute distress, can force students to make snap decisions about their future plans.

This is especially true for low-SES students, as sophomore Fiona Battistoni was quick to point out. Battistoni, whose financial aid counselor was Jessica Kelly, actually had an increase in her financial aid award this year, and her aid award last year had allowed her to pick Reed over other schools that she had been considering. “I am ultimately very thankful for my experience with Reed’s financial aid,” she explained, “thanks to it, I am the first person in my family to attend a private college, one of the first to attend a four-year university at all, and I have been able to do so without taking on a large amount of debt.” But she was also quick to point out the flaws in Reed’s financial aid system: “There is absolutely no transparency or way for students to know what to expect… There is no clarity about how financial aid is calculated, when changes in aid are to be expected, or why these changes happen.” This is especially brutal for lower-SES students, “who do not have the economic flexibility to make sudden changes to their finances in the time between receiving their award and their first payment being due.”

This fact became all too real for Rollo Brandon this year. Facing an audit from the federal government, Brandon was unable to submit all the paperwork needed for the financial aid process on time. As a result, he’s facing possible un-enrollment. “I’ve always been low-SES so it was always a matter of time before it really came to matter here at Reed,” he explained. “I’ve seen friends leave because they couldn’t afford Reed, so I have no delusions that the same couldn’t happen to me.” If his efforts with the office continue to be unfruitful, he explained that he’d “probably be forced to look for a new place, go back home… or just scrounge around [Portland] for a year or so.”

Why have so many students struggled with financial aid this semester? These stories offer little reconciliation and few clear answers. When asked to discuss these stories, Director of Financial Aid Sandy Sundstrom simply explained that “[t]here have been no changes in the aid application process or how aid eligibility is determined,” and had not commented further at the time of publication. The staffing of the Office of Financial Aid this year seems to be quite similar to last year—perhaps the ever-increasing tide of applying students has begun to overburden financial aid counselors? Regardless of the reason, turbulence in the financial aid office leaves students scrambling for assistance and searching for answers.

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