Financial Aid Leaves Out Middle Class

The article about the Senate requesting MIT’s information on endowment and tuition on Friday, Feb 22, makes things sound reasonable enough, but it’s glossing over some of the ugly facts underlying MIT’s financial aid policies.

Now, I come from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My parents are still married and work full time. MIT estimated that my parents could give about $25,000 a year towards my education. However, it seems to me that this estimate neglects a number of things — our mortgage, for instance. And the car repair bills, and the credit card debts, and the fact that I have two younger siblings.

The truth of the matter is, my parents can’t afford to put money towards my education. It’s not their fault; they have my siblings to consider, their retirements, their own debts and bills to pay. Besides, I am not my family; I am an adult, capable of caring for myself. It’s not their responsibility to pay for my education. So why does MIT seem to see it as such?

MIT’s financial aid Web site proudly claims “[W]e meet every student’s full financial need.” But one should examine more in depth how that need is determined. Need is based almost entirely upon your family’s income. This means that the majority of other financial factors — such as debts, mortgages, and retirement funds ­­— are essentially ignored.

It’s virtually impossible to decrease your parent contribution. It seems the only way MIT will lower your expected contribution is if you can provide evidence of either abuse or mental disability at home. If you can’t provide satisfactory evidence, your financial aid estimate stays the same. If your parents remove support from you completely (i.e., refuse to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid again), MIT will take the previous estimate and continue to apply it until you leave MIT.

Translation: if your family completely withdraws support from you, but you have no evidence of actual abuse, you will be left with a financial aid estimate that acts as if your familial relations were still entirely intact.

MIT’s financial aid policy, as I have been told empathetically, isn’t based on “if your parents are willing to pay”, but “if they can pay.” This is a roundabout way of saying “If your parents aren’t supporting you, there isn’t anything we’re going to do about it, so you’re pretty much out of luck.” Which means that students like me — whose families have a decent income but virtually no expendable money — are left in the cold.

MIT might not be as wealthy, but Harvard University’s new policy is extremely reasonable. The Web site states that families with an income between $120,000 and $180,000 are expected to contribute 10% of their income — versus the approximately 20% that MIT has estimated my family can contribute.

Even taking into account the difference between MIT and Harvard’s endowments, such a contrast seems ridiculous. As an adult, I should be able to move forward into my future instead of having to worry about paying off my past. My parents shouldn’t have to be responsible for me or my education.

MIT might be feeling pressure from the Senate regarding their financial aid policies, and I say that they ought to be feeling it. The cost of education is absurd enough without roundabout financial aid policies that leave low-income students with negligible loan debt, while middle class students wonder whether or not they’ll ever be able to pay off their debts.

It’s great that MIT can provide for low-income families; don’t think that I have an issue with MIT providing help to those who need it! However, middle-income students have just as much right to be at MIT as anyone else, and I think that MIT should seriously consider upgrading their aid process.

While the Executive Director of Student Financial Services Elizabeth M. Hicks noted that average student loan debt has decreased from $23,000 to $15,000, one should know that $15,000 is not the end-all-be-all amount that students will have to borrow. I’m looking at about $80,000 of debt by the time I graduate from school — if I scrimp, save, and get a job to cover my extra expenses; Not everyone is being helped as ideally as MIT’s financial aid Web site would like you to believe.

I know I’m not the only middle-income student struggling to figure out how to pay the bills, but I’m hoping that even if MIT isn’t as rich as Harvard or Yale, they can still recognize that the cost of education is getting out of control. Something needs to be done for everyone — including the middle class. Still, I’m not hoping for too much … it seems like MIT is refusing to acknowledge that maybe Harvard has done something right for once.

Alison McKenzie is a member of the Class of 2011.