Misinterpretation of Commonalities in Financial Aid for Collusion (Letter)

For the editor:

I often enjoy the Confessions column from a community college dean, especially when Mr. Reed shares a parent’s perspective on higher education. His article “6 Down, 3 to Go,” however, contains statements that concern me as someone who oversees an institution’s financial aid office.

First, this: “First, the family contribution is awfully similar for every school so far. Whether it’s a sign of collusion, addiction to a common formula, or just a cruel joke of the universe, they don’t seem to be engaging in meaningful price competition. It’s strange.”

The family contribution does indeed follow a common formula. The one from the Free Federal Student Aid Application or FAFSA. Although some institutions may make internal adjustments to the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) determined by the FAFSA process, it will be nearly identical at most institutions. This is in no way a malfeasance on the part of the financial aid offices of these institutions; quite the contrary, it is proof that we are using a common measure (although it could be said that it is wrong).

The second part that got me thinking was his assessment of the fairness (or lack thereof) of merit rewards affecting need levels. Again, there is nothing sinister at stake. On the contrary, the presence of the merit reward reduces the needs of the student. If someone needed $10 to pay for their lunch and they were given $5, their need does not remain $10. Similarly, if a student has an initial unmet need (the cost of attendance minus the CEF) of $30,000 and receives a $10,000 scholarship (whatever it is called), the need for the student is no longer $30,000…it’s $20,000.

I readily acknowledge that financial aid programs can be complex, confusing and, frankly, intimidating. I understand that even the best explained ones are not always clear. But as we explore how we can improve education about financial aid and the types of scholarships available to students, can we at least do so without scattering an office that often works very hard and receives little thanks in return?

–Beth Wolfe
Executive Vice President of Enrollment Management
University of Charleston