The stress of trying to figure out whether or not you can afford to return to campus is a struggle no one should face. However, it is a struggle that is often too common at private institutions like USF.
I know this struggle firsthand. The end of May is supposed to be a very relaxing time for students who have just completed their spring semester — May was different for me. My family’s financial circumstances changed, and I spent the month endlessly worrying if my financial aid package had been reduced. Unfortunately, the experience I had in May is a reality shared with many others.
I usually don’t like to talk about finances because I believe that they are private. However, my mentality changed when USF published a piece titled “The Possible Dream” in the summer 2019 edition of its biannual magazine. The piece publicizes USF’s financial aid office and the work it does for students, however, the omission of financial stress that students like myself face creates a situation where I can’t remain silent any longer.
The piece mainly talked about the vision that Provost Donald E. Heller and Mary Booker, assistant vice provost for the Office of Student Financial Services, has for the University. The article focuses on Provost Heller’s standard talking point about taking student loans and borrowing “responsibly,” as well as the University’s focus on recruiting low-income and first-generation college students. Provost Heller and Booker are both interviewed in the piece — all leading up to Booker introducing the $100 million the office hopes to receive from its brand-new capital campaign to fund additional scholarships for “prospective students.”
This all sounds great and really attractive — but attractive to whom?
It is fantastic that the University is recruiting first-generation and low-income students, as it adds to the fabric of this diverse community of scholars on campus. However, USF too often forgets about the middle-class students who cannot be used as marketing pawns.
However, USF too often forgets about the middle-class students who cannot be used as marketing pawns.
I am not a low-income or first-generation student. My immigrant parents had the privilege to attend college in the U.S. But being a middle-class student doesn’t mean that it’s easy to pay a nearly $70,000 tuition bill, and in its piece and its recent actions, the University has shown me that it does not care about the middle-class students on this campus.
In my experience, the financial aid office on campus is perhaps one of the hardest offices to get in contact with. This summer, it took approximately two weeks for the University to respond to a single one of the multiple emails sent from either my parents or myself regarding my financial aid package. I even sat down with my mom attempting to call the office’s phone number and got the same pre-recorded message time and time again, saying that the office was closed — even though we were calling well within business hours. When someone did pick up, we were sent down a referral-hole where no one could give a direct answer and instead referred us to other personnel in the office, oftentimes leading us to someone’s voicemail inbox and leaving us without answers.
I understand that access to the financial aid office was limited during the summer due to construction in Lone Mountain, but that is not an excuse. Students are depending on the office to answer their questions in order to decide whether or not it is in their best interest to return to USF in August.
Unfortunately, I was not alone in my struggle to contact the Office of Financial Aid. Countless friends close to me also described the financial aid office as being unresponsive to emails. If they got a response, the response would be a one-liner that did not prove to be helpful in addressing any situation. At a school where tuition is nearly $70,000, one should be able to expect a decent quality of service coming from the office that is supposed to help them pay this tuition in the first place.
In the April town hall, Provost Heller mentioned that there would be a 20.4% increase in financial aid for this school year, but I did not see an increase in my own financial aid package. One of the very last emails I received from the financial aid office regarding my appeal contained the line, “Based on a review of the information provided, it is agreed that your financial situation does present an increase in financial need. Unfortunately, the increased need did not result in eligibility for federal grant assistance.”
What does that mean? It feels like they’re saying, “We get that you need more money despite the fact that my Cal Grant and work-study were taken away, but we can’t help you because you still don’t qualify for federal and state grants.” At this point, I believe that I should have been helped by receiving additional university tuition grant funds from the supposed 20.4% increase in the aid budget to help students. Furthermore, in the April town hall, students were encouraged to contact the Office of Financial Aid for help. Evidently, many students did — but rarely received assistance.
What frustrates me most is that the University seems to be saying that they care more about prospective students than students who are presently tied to the University as enrolled students. I don’t think that that is fair. The school’s focus should be on helping current students, not creating cushy packages for incoming students whose packages might become irrelevant anyways with major tuition increases like the one seen last year. Current students need the help, but it seems like the office is leaving many current students with only two courses of action: leave the University, or come back in August with more financial woes.