Wednesday, November 22, 2006

G-Man Politely Tells-off the Begging Alma Mater

G-man, emailing the Director: Thanks for getting back to me. I encourage you to share this email with the Dean.

As you may recall, I came from a disadvantaged background. Let me elaborate. My parents were divorced since I was 8 years old. I grew up with my mother, who worked at minimum wage job in a drycleaner's shop. I graduated from a city-wide magnet school, in the top ten of my class. My recollection is that, along with my acceptance, the University offered me with a financial aid package, both grants and scholarships, and perhaps a GSL my freshman year. As a freshman, I often aced the most difficult courses, placing out of a whole year of calculus with my "5" on the AP test. In fact, I recall scoring so high on the university's E-M (second semester) Physics midterm as a sophomore, that the next highest grade was 40 points below mine. Yet, despite these and many other academic achievements, the financial aid package provided to me by the University rapidly declined. I participated in the work study program every year that I attended the University. I worked many hours per week making deliveries so that I could have money for food. I needed to take out loans to cover my books and living expenses (board) as a freshman, and then the maximum amount of loans allowable as a sophomore to help cover my increased tuition. Due to the astronomical increases in tuition (often several multiples of the rate of inflation -- something like 17% one year, as I recall), and without any adjustment in my financial aid package, and on financial probation, I had to drop out my last semester of my junior year. I took an intern engineering position with a large defense contractor, and ultimately enlisted in the navy to cover my projected expenses. My $3K sign-up bonus with the navy helped defray my last year's tuition. I doubled up on courses my senior year upon my return, graduating with distinction with a 3.54 GPA in the seven semesters I attended, with what would be considered back then to be an enormous amount of debt, as the tax code then changed, prohibiting the deductibility the interest expense of such debt against my future salary. It took more than ten years for me to earn enough money to pay off these loans while serving my country.

But the issue here is not my experience, nor the differences between the nuanced meanings of the words "scholarship" and "grant." The issue is whether similarly situated prospective students would be faced with the same or similar economic hardships, once they agreed to attend the University and accepted whatever aid package that was offered to them at the time they accepted it. As you know, I am concerned that my support would unwittingly lead to the same scenario as the one I faced. I do not want to contribute to a University that cares more about its endowment than its students, especially the kind of students that I'd like to help -- those who just need a chance to excel academically, without an added year-to-year burden that they might not be able to graduate because of their misfortunate financial situation.

What I need to know is this: what the University has done in the last 20 years to prevent what happened to me? I understand that it is rare for a student to leave and come back, but what about leaving and not coming back? Does the University keep track of the financial status of its students and their reasons for leaving? Do they understand how many leave because of financial difficulties? Is there a policy in place to ensure that the entire aid package (whether it's a grant, a scholarship, or a loan) keeps pace not just with the family's ability to pay, but also with the rate of tuition increases, so that financial gaps don't develop? From the tenor of the Dean's explanation, it appears that he blames the student for the bad acts of one or more of the parents "(usually because sometimes parents don’t want to pay as much as they can afford)." How does the University ensure that the few similarly situated students from broken homes that are extended offers to attend don't end up like me (or worse -- they leave and never finish)? Or worse yet, does the University merely tow the bureaucratic federal government line that a deadbeat parent must pay, because the deadbeat's income must be included in the FAFSA, despite the fact that the deadbeat has no inclination or legal motivation to help out the family that the deadbeat left? Ultimately, as you may now see, the student is the one who gets punished.

We all know that ultimately, a degree is very valuable. But so is moral integrity. Please demonstrate to me that the University is willing to do the right thing.