When the pandemic hit this winter, I knew from my lengthy relationship with the Office of Financial Aid that this crisis would only worsen my financial situation. Even before COVID-19 struck, the University left me and other students on our own to figure out its complex and frustrating financial aid system. In my first year of college, I had to re-appeal twice and debate with the Office of Financial Aid over a dozen times about my financial aid package. Now, more than 1,500 students are struggling against the Office of Financial Aid amid our national crisis. It is clear that every student’s life has changed due to the pandemic and that a tuition reduction is not only necessary, but justified and feasible. Thus, it is time the University provides clarity and support to its students this year and in years to come.
As a first-generation college student navigating this institution as a first-year, I wasn’t aware of my rights or resources related to my financial aid package. Like many others, I felt lucky enough just to be accepted at the University of Chicago and given the Odyssey Scholarship. So, I kept my mouth shut and smiled proudly. I was promised resources and all the support I could ask for. It seemed like a dream. However, once I was on campus, it became increasingly clear that my financial aid package wasn’t sufficient. Therefore, I re-appealed early in the fall quarter, asking for more assistance. For background, when someone re-appeals there is no conversation; you can only send in a letter and a form and hope for the best. I did eventually receive a bit more aid. Yet, the price was still too high.
Every week the conversation of expenses and financial aid loomed over my conversations with my mother. She urged me to go to the office and plead my case. I must have gone at least four times. Most times, I was told to get scholarships or loans. I applied every day for scholarships, trying to avoid loans, but it never went far. In one of my visits, the Office confirmed that I was eligible for the UChicago Empower initiative, which guarantees free tuition to families with a household income of less than $125,000 per year with typical assets. However, I didn’t provide enough “evidence” that I wasn’t hiding any assets, referring to a personal family situation I had over four years ago. There was no room for argument with them, and I was shut down. Eventually, in my winter quarter my student account was on hold because my mother and I could not pay the dues. I was surprised to find that the Office of Financial Aid administrators had no answers for me and repeatedly contradicted their promises to financial aid students under their UChicago Empower initiative, which included a No Barriers Policy that promises to help students graduate debt free. Ultimately, I had no other choice but to send a long letter essentially begging the Office to help me, or I would have to take the rest of the school year off. After appealing my aid package twice, taking out loans I was supposed to be discouraged from (No Barriers Policy), having a hold placed on my student account, and accepting a monthly installment plan forced on me by the University, my tuition is finally “manageable.” That is, until it isn’t. I am still forced to pay the University tuition that, according to the University of Chicago’s policies and a Financial Aid assistant director, I shouldn’t even have to pay.
Thus, tired and isolated as a first-generation student, I knew the pandemic would create further stress on my family. This stress was slightly alleviated when I received notice that Odyssey Scholars would be receiving a $1,500 advance. An email received on March 13 from the Office stated “As an Odyssey Scholar, we are providing a $1,500 advance on your spring quarter financial aid to assist with costs you may incur during the transition. The Bursar’s Office will have these funds available to you by early next week, via direct deposit if you are already enrolled. If you are not enrolled in direct deposit, you may enroll at my.UChicago, Finances Tab, or a paper check will be mailed to your permanent address on record.” There were no requirements on this advance, only that it was to be received by all Odyssey Scholars. Any peace quickly faded away as two weeks passed and I had not received anything. I hesitantly contacted the Office of Financial Aid, worried that due to my installment plan, they may choose not to help me. For the next few days, I was pushed back and forth by the Office of the Bursar, and the Office of Financial Aid, neither one wanting to claim responsibility until I was finally told that due to my debt to the school, they would not be giving me any assistance.
To say I was outraged at this point would be an understatement. I was tired of being pushed around and taken advantage of by the administration. I responded to both the Bursar and the Office of Financial Aid with copies of my appeals and explained at length how unfair and contradictory it was to pick and choose who received financial assistance at this time, or pick and choose when to follow through with their policies. No one responded to me personally, but an hour later, I received a notification that my advance would be dispersed into my account. This essentially proved that although I qualified for this advance, they were testing me to see if I would respond or fight back. I was relieved to have received assistance, but I still found myself feeling defeated.
The University has always looked at my peers and at me as dollar amounts, and not as the students that they claim make their University great. I am more than disappointed to find that the University is ignoring the pleas and real needs of their students, and allowing us to go through more and more financial strife just for their own profit. It’s time the University hears the needs of financial aid students and commits to the promises they make, starting with a tuition reduction in light of the COVID-19 outbreak that will truly help financial aid students. We should not have to beg and argue for rightful assistance.
Samantha Herrera is a first-year in the College.