College Dreams Thwarted by Financial Schemes

I distinctly remember the day I received my acceptance letter from Colorado College. The weather had been bad and, as a result, our internet connection was impaired. When the admission letters were released at 2 p.m. MST, I spent 30 minutes frantically trying to restart our router. Finally, I opened my email and discovered the good news: I got in.  We all remember this moment during the admissions process. Acceptance made all of those months of worrying and scrambling for letters of recommendation worth it. However, I never realized the real struggle was not in getting the acceptance letter, it was in figuring out how to afford to attend. It was sobering to realize that the people in the Admission Office who had decided I was a good fit for the college would not be the people to make that dream accessible.

Cartoon by Ben Murphy

In the recent study published by the New York Times, CC was ranked among the least economically diverse colleges in the nation. The median income of CC parents indicates that 78 percent of students come from a family that makes about $277,500 or higher each year. When interviewed by Catalyst writer Chaney Skilling, Vice President for Enrollment Mark Hatch seemed surprised by this income distribution, because he oversees a department that doesn’t necessarily deal with the financial implications of attending CC. The Admission Office simply decides which applicants are of the necessary caliber for a CC education. Unfortunately, the Financial Aid Office controls who can and cannot attend CC, as I had the discomfort of discovering when I visited campus the spring of my senior year.

My mother and I traveled to CC in order to look at the campus and talk to the Financial Aid Office in March of 2016. I come from a single-income household with a father who has chosen to no longer be in the picture, and, while my mother has been financially successful in her career endeavors, the fact that she is the sole breadwinner in a family of four places us in the upper middle class. I had received my estimate from CC a few weeks earlier, and my mother was dismayed to discover the price was just outside of what she could afford to pay for my college education. Logistically, I would have to take out student loans plus additional loans to meet the difference between what she could afford to pay and the expected family contribution. This would place me in a debt of nearly half of my expected cost of attendance, not including the cost of books and supplies. Dismayed, I called my incredibly helpful Admission Officer, Carrie Hanrahan, for advice. She sympathized with my situation and assured me that if I had been admitted, I was wanted at CC, and therefore the college would try to help make my attendance as affordable as possible. She recommended that I make an appointment with the Financial Aid Office to discuss my concerns.

So there I sat, holding my anxious mother’s hand, waiting for our appointment. When we finally met with an administrator to discuss our financial aid standing, the woman was cold, unhelpful, and rude. We thought of all the alternatives, asked about our single-household income, the fact that my mother is on the brink of retirement, and the multiple dependents she cares for. All questions were met with little to no wiggle room, and we were assured that she was offering us the best price she could. She attempted to sympathize with our financial difficulties because she had a child who was also going through the college admission process; however, she insisted there was nothing she could do. At the end of the visit, she looked my mother directly in the eyes and told her “I didn’t let my kid apply to schools that I couldn’t afford.”

Although that was a dark day in the college admission process and I had to momentarily part with the idea of attending my dream school, I am here now. I am not here because the Financial Aid Office made the price tag manageable for my family. Nor am I here because suddenly and miraculously we found the extra income that financial aid insisted my mother was making. I have made it here through a full-ride merit scholarship gifted to me through a private institution outside of CC that secured my enrollment. While in my case I was particularly blessed to receive the funds necessary to attend this school, I realize that I was fortunate to receive such an honor and that many students aren’t as lucky. In fact, many students who share my circumstances are at the mercy of the Financial Aid Office. While I do not question the humanity of the Financial Aid Office or the people who work within it, I question the attitude that our Financial Aid Office holds. As high school seniors we are given pamphlets and information sessions about how the hardest part of the college admission process is getting in to schools and that private, prestigious institutions should have the most money to give. Most importantly, a price tag shouldn’t make us shy away from applying. Yet our Financial Aid Office refuses to abandon the “price tag” mentality in which those who apply should be able to afford the cost. Inadvertently, the Financial Aid Office marginalizes the middle-class community at this school. While most of us are no longer subjected to the early financial aid process, this archaic ideology that considers higher-income students more deserving of a distinguished liberal arts education continues, and, at the same time, the cost of tuition at this college is increasing.

The Admission Office has been hard at work creating a new class of CC students in an attempt to fix the diversity issue. This new class can either reflect the diversity of those admitted to CC or they can end up reflecting the same status quo in the financial aid process, continuing to decrease our economic diversity as a whole.

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