Welcome to Penn, everyone! We’re all very happy to have you – as long as you can pay us, of course.
A 2017 study found that the median student family income in Penn is $195,500. This is possibly the most cited statistic here in The Daily Pennsylvanian’s opinion section. Despite Penn’s privileged reputation, 46% of undergraduate students received grant-based financial aid in the 2020-21 school year, and the average package covered the cost of tuition and more. About 10% of undergraduate students are considered “highly funded”.
On the surface, Penn’s financial aid team is doing fine. Eighty percent of students who receive financial aid graduate with no debt, and adjusted for inflation, the average net cost of assisted students has fallen 19.5% since 2005. But this story, while containing impressive statistics, omits the students’ journey.
It was easy to find students who could share Penn’s failures with his financially vulnerable, but much more difficult to find someone to put it on record. This column uses pseudonyms, and I hope readers understand why: students who received help were afraid they would bite the hand that fed them.
Start with Penn Jr. Greg*: When he and his family had to decide whether to take out a loan – a decision heavily dependent on the financial aid package they received – he emailed inquiries to the Office of Student Registration and Financial Services, Did it but received no replies for over a week. He was also hung up on several times when he attended SRFS consultations by phone. “These are huge amounts of money we’re talking about,” Greg began. “What’s stopping you, seasoned adults with ‘natural talents’, from being a little more proactive?”
Another student, Junior Nursing Kelly*, is as proactive as it gets. In the past month, she called SRFS 11 times before receiving a proper financial aid package. At first, Penn seemed to be confusing her with another student. Her estimated family contribution cost about $17,000 more than her usual package, and the wording of her awards incorrectly suggested that one of her parents was employed by Penn. With that resolved, Kelly encountered another problem: she lacked the help of a loan forgiveness grant organized by Penn, which would reduce her estimated family contribution by an additional $8,000.
“Why are you bringing up these experiences now?” curious readers can ask. On July 25, SRFS sent out an email assuring students who had not yet received their financial aid that they would not have to pay late fees for the month. SRFS chose to address this delay just five days before the due date, with little or no explanation for their announcement, as they explained in the email that “we are shipping a large volume of packages as quickly as possible.” work through, and we appreciate your patience.”
Conveniently, the suspected reason for these delays—the move to [email protected], Penn’s new online hub for students, as reported to me by a Student Service Center advisor—is omitted.
This was what many of my interviewees called a “Penn moment.” [email protected] was shaky from the start: students found it difficult to navigate, and SRFS had to reset the pre-registration carts last spring when the program inadvertently allowed first-come, first-served course registration. It seems unethical to Penn not to pilot this flawed grant distribution system, a task with even greater consequences.
Penn’s most vulnerable students deserve more diligence and transparency. As I sat in the Student Service Center to deal with my own financial woes, I heard snippets of other people’s circumstances. Many students had missing forms or otherwise made mistakes in their financial aid applications that they didn’t hear about until months after they submitted them. Financial aid applications are often confusing for both students and parents, and some students receive little to no assistance in completing them. I beg you to empathize with the students who make mistakes—especially if you’ve never filled out financial aid forms yourself.
There are clear consequences when students submit information after the deadlines set by Penn, or when that information is incomplete. Students and their families spend weeks, if not months, in the dark about whether they can afford the coming year at Penn. Notably, students are still expected to pay their bill before the due date even if SRFS has not yet delivered their financial aid package to them. If students do not receive a package before the invoice due date, they have two options. The first is to charge a 1.5% monthly late fee with no guarantee that it will be waived when a package arrives. The second is to estimate what their bill might be based on previous semesters and just hope that their payment will suffice.
SRFS does not face similar deployments. It can take four to five weeks for financial aid consultants to even identify errors in a student’s form, let alone develop a financial package. The decision not to charge late fees until the next bill was due was generous on the part of SRFS, but Greg maintained that students should be given at least a month’s notice – not five days before the last bill was due. Penn’s lack of accountability is a painful embodiment of “rules for me, but not for you.”
Keep in mind that Penn has pledged to fully meet its students’ proven needs for all four years, but that’s a murky promise. While Penn delivers on that promise, the arduous journey students must take to get her help is anything but honorable. It’s embarrassing that this should happen to even one student, let alone enough students, that Penn is forced to waive its late fee.
So what to do?
Kelly made it a point not to blame any of the employees she spoke to in her 11 calls to SRFS. To them, they were at the forefront, conveying the greater shortcomings of Penn as an institution. Greg called for more “final deadlines” and more transparency and initiative.
As we translate those values into concrete actions that SRFS could take, I can think of a few changes. For starters, SRFS could do more to publicize and host workshops for students filling out financial aid applications—theirs Twitter and Instagram accounts have a meager 143 and 121 followers respectively, and scrolling through the past year I could only find a mention of the FAFSA or CSS profile, two forms that students who receive help must fill out.
I also suspect that SRFS is underfunded, understaffed, or both. It shouldn’t take another four to five weeks for a student and family to have financial peace – in fact, these emotional and economic strains shouldn’t have a pre-determined schedule at all and should be dealt with promptly. This certainty could also be achieved by democratizing the formulas used to calculate these packets: Penn’s current calculator is better than nothing, but we only know the inputs and outputs, not the method by which the outputs are calculated.
“If you’re an 18, 19-year-old, you’re not going to win against Penn,” Kelly noted. Likewise, Greg spoke of receiving financial support from Penn as if it were an uneven battle, describing himself as a “20-year-old who hasn’t seen the real world.”
Participating in Penn shouldn’t feel like we’re fighting Penn. Though this real world (and SRFS) is often fraught with bureaucracy and incompetence, agreeing to that treatment belies what we as students are: smart, driven changemakers. As we begin a new term, I hope everyone at Penn can have their say, whether through the DP or some other way. I hope that we can think of and implement campus-wide improvements. That’s what we do best.
We must demand change. Reorganizing Penn’s financial services to maximize empathy and minimize strain.
*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.
CAROLINE MAGDOLEN is a College and Engineering Junior studying Environmental Science and Systems Engineering in New York City. Your email address is [email protected].