SGA hosts Town Hall with admissions and financial aid

 Photo by Grace Mercer ’22   Robin Randall (left) and Kathryn Blaisdell (right).

Photo by Grace Mercer ’22

Robin Randall (left) and Kathryn Blaisdell (right).

BY LILY REAVIS ’21

Kathryn Blaisdell, Director of Student Financial Services (SFS), joined Robin Randall, interim Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions, for a Town Hall about admissions and financial aid on Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Students submitted questions for Blaisdell and Randall through an online forum during Senate. The question and answer period was facilitated by Salina Hussain ’21, the senate chair for the Student Government Association (SGA) and Nohelya Zambrano ’21, SGA Chair of Halls. Anonymous questions were accepted and read by SGA correspondents.

Several students expressed concerns about the legitimacy of the College’s stated financial aid policy. The College’s financial aid website reads, “Mount Holyoke College is committed to providing need-based financial aid to meet 100 percent of demonstrated need, according to eligibility guidelines, for all admitted students. When the cost to attend increases, the financial aid package also increases accordingly.” However, several students shared personal stories in which they felt their need was not met.

Lauren Fuller ’22 serves on SGA as the hall senator for 1837 Hall and identifies as a low-income first-generation student. “In my college search, I looked specifically for schools that pledged to cover 100 percent full projected need, and only applied to those schools,” she said. “Mount Holyoke being one of those schools, I applied, I got in, I was very excited.” But after attending a meeting with SFS during Accepted Students Day last April, Fuller’s family was expected to contribute more than they planned.

“My dad is the sole earner in my family. Our income is below the poverty line. My estimated family contribution was $0,” Fuller said. Like many other students who raised questions at Tuesday’s Town Hall, Fuller has a non-custodial parent. “My parents divorced when I was 12 and my mom hasn’t financially been responsible for me since,” she said. Despite this, her annual family contribution was totaled using her mother’s income and assets as well as her father’s.

Blaisdell and Randall explained that SFS takes all parents into account when calculating family contribution, except in extreme circumstances. Both agreed that family dynamics can be difficult to work through and explained that more financial resources need to be allocated to students who only have one parent. Randall said that SFS looks for a difference between willingness and ability of parents, custodial or not, to pay for the student’s education.

Blaisdell said that the average debt Mount Holyoke students graduate with is around $20,000. According to CNBC, the average American undergraduate borrower graduates with $37,172 of debt.

Fuller said, “I will have twice the [average] national debt when I graduate.”

Students called for more transparency regarding the College’s promise to cover 100 percent of student demonstrated need. “That policy puts my family in crippling debt,” Fuller said. “That policy puts my dad in the position of working until the day he dies.”

Another issue raised by students had to do with the financial aid packages awarded to international students. Blaisdell and Randall explained that SFS’ policy is to assess family contribution for international students once, at their point of enrollment, rather than annually.

Randall explained that though taxes and the FAFSA make it easier to annually recalculate the family contributions of domestic students, doing so for international students is much more difficult.

Blaisdell added that, in extreme situations, international students can appeal for reconsideration of their family contribution.

Community members also voiced concerns about the gendered language used by admissions and SFS to refer to students. For example, the College’s financial aid website states, “Because Mount Holyoke is committed to educating exceptionally talented women, we offer both merit-based and need-based aid to qualified applicants.” On Tuesday, students asked Blaisdell and Randall if they still consider Mount Holyoke a women’s college.

Randall said that she considers Mount Holyoke a women’s college that is gender-inclusive. Blaisdell said that she prefers to use “student” rather than “daughter” or “woman” when referring to members of the College.

Blaisdell and Randall also discussed the steps that are being taken to combat overenrollment. For the 2019-2020 academic year, they plan to admit only 525 students. This year, 636 new students were admitted.

Randall said that, while the College does not necessarily want to decrease its acceptance rate, it would have to if as many people applied this year as they did last year.

“Generally, what we try to accomplish with these Town Halls is to create a space for students to raise their questions, comments and concerns,” Hussain said after the Town Hall. “That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m super thrilled with the way that presenters respond or what their responses are, but I am always so impressed by the creativity of our senators and the amazing questions they bring into the space.”

There will be another Town Hall on Nov. 20, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving break. At this meeting, Janet Lansberry, Associate Director of the Weissman Center for Leadership, will join Karen Engall, Director of Health Services and Erica Weathers, a social worker within Counseling Services.

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