Ababiy: The financial aid delusion

University President Eric Kaler says financial aid is a powerful message. So why aren’t we saying the right thing?

Jonathan Ababiy

At its monthly meeting on Thursday, the Board of Regents will hear the presentation for and discuss a report entitled, “Holistic View of Student Financial Burden.” I stumbled on it while skimming the board’s docket. I’m very glad I did — even if going through its pages of facts and figures lowers my heart rate into near-slumber — because it feels like it could be the Museum of University Cluelessness’ main exhibit in its overflowing “Financial Aid Collection.” 

The reason it feels that way is that the report and its “Holistic View of the Student Financial Burden” is an excellent example of how much the University believes its oxymoronic and self-serving definition of financial aid.

Generally, the University feels like one of those panopticon airplane control centers. Somebody’s watching you, dictating your every step and subjecting your life to random changes without your knowledge — but you can’t do anything about it. Your calls will get lost in a labyrinth of redirects and voicemails and your emails will be thrown off into the abyss. You never see a soul up in the control tower, just dark windows encased by concrete. 

The “Holistic View of Student Financial Aid Burden,” like many of the board’s dockets, is like stepping into that control tower. Nobody hears you, and even if they did, they wouldn’t listen. But you have the ability to get a good look around. Here, you can see the way that the University, as an institution, thinks and looks down on you.  

Being up in the control tower doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like the view, though. I can say I don’t.

The report reminded me of the experience I had going from my first University financial aid award letter last year to the “Shopping Sheet” this year. I received my first award letter around the time that I got into the University. It was a couple pages of boring legalese and tables, stating various potential relationships with Pell, Perkins, and Stafford. As a first-generation college student, it genuinely mystified me. 

After receiving the Shopping Sheet the following year, it immediately convinced me that it was financial aid’s greatest innovation, besides more aid. Made popular by Education Secretary Arne Duncan in 2012, it clearly explained in soft rectangles how much school cost, how much free money I got and the net cost I would have to pay, whether through loans or work study. 

What was innovative about the Shopping Sheet, besides its simplicity and clarity, was that it finally regarded “financial aid” as the oxymoron that it is. There is some aid, or free money, involved in financial aid, but much of it is attaching yourself to loans that will take a lifetime to pay off. It is refreshing to read my Shopping Sheet after reading the report because it exists in a reality where real people have to pay for things with their own real money.

The report and many of the people in the control tower — or those in the administration — take the oxymoron of financial aid seriously, and it isn’t clear whether their view of student financial burden is getting anymore holistic. In a Minnesota Daily interview last school year, University President Eric Kaler said that there was enough financial aid to make tuition free for families making under $30,000. For those families, he told the Daily, “I think that’s a powerful message.” This illustrates the administration’s tendency to pat itself on the back when it comes to financial aid offerings, while that offering is still insufficient. 

As someone whose Shopping Sheet took Kaler up on that offer, the $9,000 in room and board that I still had to pay was, in his words, “a powerful message.”