Raises in Family Contributions Surprise Students

When Claire Cho ’20 received her financial aid package in early July, she was shocked — her expected family contribution had doubled “without any indication that it would,” she said.

After conversing with friends and peers, she realized that a number of students’ expected family contributions had changed dramatically since their first year.

“People who were really close with me, we were really unhappy with the way Financial Aid was handling it,” she said.

“It didn’t seem like just one or two people,” Cho added. “It seemed much more of a trend.”

The change in expected family contribution, as well as a seeming lack of transparency from the Office of Financial Aid, prompted Cho to gather data to assess the prevalence of this trend. In early August, she created an online survey about satisfaction with interactions with the Office of Financial Aid, asking if a student’s expected family contribution changed after their first year and whether a student had taken out loans to meet the expected family contribution. Other questions examined the financial aid appeals process and accessibility.

After creating the survey, she posted it on her personal Facebook page as well as the Class of 2020 Facebook page. Within three days, she was accepted into other class pages and began sharing her survey there. At press time, 115 students have responded to the survey, and she plans to reach out to other groups in the first few weeks of school. She hopes to receive responses from at least a quarter of the student body before conducting any analysis.

“It’s obviously going to be skewed toward people who do get financial aid or interact with the financial aid office, but hopefully we’ll have a good reach over all the students,” she said.

In addition to the changes in expected family contribution, which for some students tripled, Cho said survey responses revealed the unresponsiveness of staff in the Office of Financial Aid.

“For a lot of people, it took two or more emails,” she said. “Some people said they had to resort to walking in and asking someone about it because there wasn’t a response in two weeks’ time.”

The survey also focused on the accessibility of financial aid documents, especially for low-income families and families of people of color, Cho said. According to Cho, a big gap is caused by a lack of support for languages other than English.
“For a lot of families where parents aren’t fluent in English, students are really the ones filling out forms on behalf of their parents,” she said.

Dean of Financial Aid Gail Holt emailed Cho about four days after the survey was publicized and asked for an in-person meeting. Cho plans to meet with Holt in the fall after speaking to a few trusted administrators and mentors.

As responses rolled in, Cho made slight changes to the survey, including adding a section on loans. According to Cho, the Office of Financial Aid does not include loans in its financial aid packages, and almost 50 percent of the survey responses said students have taken out loans in order to meet the expected family contribution. The amount of loans that respondents have had to take out range from approximately $2,500 to $25,000, said Cho.

“Even if your expected family contribution might be a lot higher than your family can afford to give in a certain semester, you’ll have to go out and find loans by yourself, and Amherst will only link to certain loans,” Cho said. “A lot of people felt frustrated that there was this hidden extra step to afford an education at Amherst.”

Cho said 60 percent of survey responses have contacted Financial Aid to appeal the decisions on aid packages. When asked if they felt like their appeal was processed in a timely manner, nearly 35 percent of those respondents said “a clear no,” and though the Financial Aid office has a version of an appeals process webpage, 98 percent supported the addition of an appeals process webpage that would outline who to contact for an appeal, what would qualify for an appeal and what deadlines to meet.

“Even when you’re in contact, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, we’re still not getting to appeals yet’ or will give a generic response,” she said. “There may be some circumstances where you don’t qualify for an appeal and you should know that before you go through all this challenge trying to get an appeal. It actually takes a long time, and they don’t really get to it until July or August.”

For example, one student told Cho that her appeals process only officially ended in the beginning of August. Financial Aid sent a “generic worded letter” that stated the student didn’t qualify for more aid, but ayment for fall semester’s tuition was due Aug. 11. As a result, students have to “scramble to get their loans out,” Cho said.

Eighty-three percent of survey respondents also supported a four-year estimate for their education, Cho said.
“It shows you how many people have been probably blindsided by how much their four-year education might cost at Amherst College,” Cho said. “The fact that Amherst College is sort of known for its generous financial aid means that that rhetoric might not always fall in line with what’s reality.”

When contacted, Holt wrote in an email that “we always welcome conversations with students and parents about how the financial aid process at Amherst works and their experience navigating it so that we can learn and continually try to improve.”

“The college awards more than $51 million each year in grant assistance to nearly 60 percent of the student body, and 75 percent of Amherst graduates are able to graduate debt-free,” she added.

Update: The Office of Financial Aid has clarified that an appeals process webpage does exist though it may differ from that described in last week’s article “Raises in Family Contributions Surprises Students.” Dean of Financial Aid Gail Holt has also clarified that she did not state she wanted to make data from Claire Cho ’20’s financial aid survey “transparent and accessible” but rather information about financial aid in general. The article was updated on Sept. 12, 2017 to reflect these changes.