Updating financial aid: What’s happening, and why the Administration is right

Some people have been in a row with the administration lately, concerning a proposed change to the system by which need-based financial aid is administered to Brandeis applicants. While I am generally wildly enthusiastic about questioning the decisions of administrators, this time, they are dead-on right.

This is not to say that the opposing students are necessarily wrong, but rather that they have been fighting the wrong battle – that is, the facts of the proposed changes and the terms of the argument have been lost in the heat of discussion.

So before we continue angrily decrying the proposed change, let me try to frame the situation as clearly as possible:

Brandeis is faced with a predicament: many students apply to Brandeis who the office of admissions would like to accept, and who also have financial need. The university has a set amount of money it has put aside for need-based financial aid. Unfortunately, this amount is only enough to meet about 85% of all the aid those students require. The school is faced with three options:

1. Give every low-income student 85% of the money ze needs, or

2. Give 85% of low-income students ALL the aid they need, and give the other fifteen percent nothing, or

3. Choose a middle ground between options 1 and 2.

This question is at the heart of the recent decision to change the financial aid admissions policy. Currently, the university follows a middle ground much closer to option 1 than 2, granting most needy students less money than they require in order to pay Brandeis tuition. This process, referred to as “gapping,” means there is a funding gap these students will have to meet on their own, through taking out thousands of dollars in debt.

Now, the university is proposing we move to option 2. Brandeis will grant full aid to as many needy students as it can, according to their merit (so the most desirable 85% of needy students will be accepted and have their full need met). The other fifteen percent would not get any aid, because the university has no money left to give.

This decision is a just one. If Admissions tells a student coming from a family of poverty that it can give hir $120,000 but ze will still have to find $40,000 more, ze could understandably not decide to come to Brandeis ( especially in today’s poor economic climate). The poor student is even more unlikely to come if another, wealthier school with a huge endowment grants hir 100% of hir need. Indeed, our retention rate for needy students granted aid has been dropping recently, precisely for this reason. The proposed change would raise the retention rate significantly. In the end, more low-income students will actually be able to attend Brandeis – if that’s not social justice, what is?

However, we are left with a conundrum: what to do with the bottom fifteen percent of students? We could either…

2.A. reject their applications outright, or

2.B. admit them but offer them no aid.

In terms of who eventually comes to Brandeis, options A and B will usually have the same effect. Consider – If you need $160,000 over four years to pay for college, you don’t have it, and the university will not give you any of it, do you think you would attend Brandeis or another school that offered you an aid package?

The administrators said today during the Town Hall that they’re still ironing out the details on options 2.A vs. 2.B, but seem to be leaning towards option 2.A. They gave a few reasons for this, chief among which is how shitty it is to tell a needy student that ze is accepted, but in name only, since ze will not receive any aid. Understandable. Also, accepting students who will be unlikely to attend the University has the effect of raising our acceptance rate (a supposedly bad thing) while lowering our accepted student retention rate (also a bad thing). But option A does allow for some righteous sermoning, if you’re so inclined. Even if A is the same as option B in practicality, in principle option A does discriminate admissions decisions based on need (since the bottom 15% of needy students – those who would receive no money – are rejected, while comparative applicants who demonstrate no financial need would be accepted). But it is important to realize that the heart of the proposed change is the move from options 1 to 2, not the decision of whether to implement option 2.A or option 2.B.

In reality, the administration is not even planning a full implementation of the plan I have called option 2.A. They are instead treating that bottom 15% (or whatever it might change to) of needy students with a softer cut-off, realizing that there are always special cases and so making sure the general plan doesn’t result in any obviously unwanted results. But regardless, the situation I have laid out is the correct one. And after reading through it, it should be obvious that the point of these changes is not to make more money for the University, but to more justly redistribute financial aid. If you care about social justice, vote yes on this one.


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