Opinion guest column

On need

How MIT’s financial aid system fails students with noncustodial parents

If you ever find yourself in an MIT Admissions information session, the last slide will have three phrases on it: Need Based, Need Blind, and Full Need. This is MIT’s financial commitment to its students: (1) there are no merit-based scholarships, so all financial aid is only based on need; (2) undergraduate admissions does not take financial need into account while reviewing applications; and (3) MIT will meet 100% of demonstrated need. I wish I could tell you this was true, and it may well be for most students. The phrases sure are catchy. 

I. Need Based

According to the MIT Student Financial Services (SFS) Financial Aid Glossary, need based “means that we award financial aid entirely based on your family’s financial circumstances.”

Need based should mean that when assigning financial aid awards, SFS gives you aid based on how much you need it, you being an individual MIT student whose name shows up on MITPay. You may pay yourself or your parents may pay for everything, but ultimately, the check is under your name. Simple enough, right? SFS, however, determines your award based on your family’s ability to pay, regardless of their intent to contribute or your access to their funds. It raises the question: who counts as family? 

When I first opened the aid application my senior spring of high school, giddy about my magical college future, one question took me by surprise. 

Do you have a non-custodial parent? 

I do. My biological mother gave up physical custody of both my brother and me when my dad filed for divorce. I was two years old at the time. It isn’t “normal” for parents to give up custody of their kids — in the sense of the idyllic American nuclear family with 2.2 kids playing behind a white picket fence. In fact, the California standard is a 50/50 time and responsibility split between parents. Given the abnormality of my family situation, it is reasonable that there should be special accommodations in the financial aid application process. 

For the sake of privacy, let’s call this woman who gave birth to me Leanne. I will never know exactly why she decided to give up custody. Maybe she knew in her heart that she’d never wanted children, and it was my dad’s life calling to be a good father. Maybe she justified it because he made more money than her. Maybe she was scared that she couldn’t be there for me if something went wrong. Regardless, I didn’t know about the legal arrangement for most of my childhood because we all did our best to play the roles expected of a reasonable split family. 

For 11 years, until I was in the eighth grade, my parents shuttled me back and forth between their houses like a “typical” child of divorce. There were “Mommy Mondays” — dinner with Leanne and then back to Dad’s yellow house in Berkeley before bed. Every other weekend, my biological mother would pick up me and my brother in her Subaru Outback and take us to her place in whichever suburb or smaller town she moved to last. There were at least six different apartments or homes in those 11 years. 

I didn’t find out about the custody arrangement — that I wasn’t required to live at her house — until my last year of middle school, when we became estranged. Or, to put it in a less passive way, I decided never to speak to her again. Only then did my dad and step-mom, who I call my mom, realize it was important for me to know that I wasn’t actually required to live with Leanne. I still haven’t spoken to her, not for all of high school or college, even now in my senior year. The only intentional contact I’ve been forced to initiate was through the MIT financial aid process. 

See, MIT requires noncustodial parents to submit their financial aid information through the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile, a College Board form designed to consolidate tax documents and income declarations. The wrinkle is, Leanne is contributing a whopping $0 to my education. She is paying nothing toward my housing nor food. No child support. Nada. I wouldn’t want it any other way, given my desire to not have any association with her. If she is not paying anything toward my education, I have no contact with her, and she does not have custody over me or claim me as a dependent, then why is her information necessary to determine my financial need?

MIT and its peer institutions have varying ways of approaching noncustodial parents in their informational material. Brown University, for instance, says that should parents “discontinue their financial support for reasons other than ability to pay, Brown will not assume the parental responsibility for financial support of the student.” Essentially, though universities are in loco parentis in the eyes of the law, Brown would not want to be my mommy. Or make up for her mistakes, I suppose. They’re saying that the student’s actual ability to pay is not their concern. The reality of that student’s access to financial resources does not matter, as if legal definitions of parents on birth certificates are the same as cash in hand. MIT is not so explicit in its dismissal of students in this circumstance, instead giving the tame, even amiable, reassurance that if “you have trouble submitting financial information because of a previous or ongoing separation or divorce please contact us, we can help. We may be able to waive the need for financial information from your noncustodial parent.” Seems fair enough, but what are the requirements for such a waiver? What counts as “trouble submitting”? MIT’s website directs you to the CSS Profile Waiver Request form, which says that an exemption may be made with:

Reading these requirements for the first time flashed a memory behind my eyes of standing in a prim cardigan in front of a judge as a pre-teen, trying to avoid eye contact with the woman spilling lies about our relationship. This never actually happened to me, though I thought about it plenty. Leanne threatened to take me and my parents to court when I initiated the estrangement, but I got us out of it by attending one tear-stained family therapy session. Leanne sat unmoved when I said I felt like she was stalking me by showing up on my dad’s front porch after I said I didn’t want to see her anymore. But that doesn’t fall into the neat financial aid form bucket. I couldn’t meet the other conditions either. Without the “court documents,” “legal orders,” or “third-party documentation,” required for a waiver, I was screwed. This boilerplate form and its strict, institutional requirements were not reflective of the messy, complicated needs inherent to the type of family where a noncustodial parent exists in the first place. Shaken by the strict, official language of the form, my dad and I decided to try to get Leanne to submit her financial documents rather than file a waiver.

After I entered her email into the College Board website, it automatically sent her a request to fill out the forms. She wrote directly to me, despite my repeated pleas throughout the years for her not to do so:

“Now that you have had a few years to learn more about how to be kind to people and respect their feelings, I am sure you will understand why someone who has been repeatedly rejected might not want to do a favor for you. It is up to you to remedy the situation you created.”

The act of reaching out, even for a few financial documents, opened the door for guilt-tripping. Leanne has a pattern of financial manipulation, withholding funds in exchange for attention. The same thing happened a few months before the estrangement, when Leanne told me — then 13 years old, remember — she was moving all of my brother’s college savings to my account because he didn’t spend enough time with her. Right after I broke off contact, she transferred the contents of my savings account to her personal coffers as punishment for leaving. Writing this essay, I feel a pit in my chest just rereading those words, though the threat is long since passed. Could the powers-that-be behind the financial aid system not have anticipated that forcing interaction with noncustodial parents might create channels for harmful family members to sneak back into their children’s lives? Luckily, my father took on the bulk of the responsibility for the situation, despite his own hesitance to interact with a woman he divorced for a reason. I found an email from my dad to Leanne on Nov. 27, 2017, which reads, 

“Annie forwarded us your email trying to pressure her into family therapy as a condition of completing financial aid forms for her college applications. Annie has no desire to engage in family therapy. I hope you will reconsider and complete the forms — it will make everything much simpler. This kind of attempt at pressure is no way to repair a relationship, if that is what you are trying to achieve.”

Leanne did eventually fill out the forms that year. Her third income beyond that of the parents I live with artificially deflated the financial need on my application, but I still received aid that year. The key point here is that for all the pain of reopening contact, the system set me up to receive less aid without regard to Leanne’s lack of expected financial contribution. SFS took my “family’s financial circumstances” into account, but their broad definition of family included a woman who is more of an angry ghost than a functioning parent. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that this choice was better for the university’s bottom line. 

II. Need Blind

The SFS Financial Aid Glossary states that prospective students “are not disadvantaged in the undergraduate admissions process because of their financial need. We are one of only six schools in the U.S. that is need blind and meets full need for all students, foreign and domestic.”

My financial situation did not affect my acceptance to MIT. The admissions office fulfilled its promise of keeping my finances separate from the application reading process. Yet, SFS itself was blind to my need for guidance, compassion, and understanding as the child of a noncustodial parent. 

What they saw: discrepancies between numbers on files and missing or blurry documents. 

What they asked for: my father and I to get back in touch with Leanne over and over and over again to correct the mistakes.

What they didn’t see: me tearing up and trying not to let my dad hear it in my voice when I told him on the phone that, yet again, for the third time, we’d have to go back and ask her for a correction. 

SFS didn’t see that we couldn’t figure out how to hide my email address from Leanne on the College Board website, so she tried to reach out to me each time the web portal alerted her it was that time of year again. I set up an inbox filter that automatically deleted any messages from the three email accounts she set up. SFS didn’t see the cards she sent to my dorm address, which no one in my family would have told her, as if to say that she could always find out where I lived. Was that address on the financial aid forms? I don’t know. Other schools promise to avoid this situation. The California Institute of Technology writes on their website that in cases of divorce, “personal information, such as contact information and Social Security numbers, will… not be shared with the other parent.” SFS should ensure that all financial aid systems they use are set up to fulfill this promise. Sensitive information should be kept confidential not just between divorced parents, but also between parent and student when applicable. Making oneself vulnerable to stalking should not be a condition to apply for aid. 

SFS didn’t see any of this because they did not establish any familiarity with my family’s situation. We were left blind to their inner workings because the office was opaque to us. Faceless, nameless, uncontactable. Each time reaching out was a test of will power. When we called my assigned financial aid counselor my first year, he didn’t pick up or return my dad’s voicemail. The following years were smooth enough. Senior year was a disaster. Over the course of four months, my father and I suffered through convoluted, misinformed, and unhelpful email chains with a string of financial aid officers. The following section details these exchanges, though the specificity is provided as evidence, not entertainment. 

It began with a form email that said, “We are writing to let you know that your financial aid application for the 2021–2022 academic year is incomplete.”

The email didn’t include the actual problem but instead provided a link to an application portal. The first time, the portal told me a form was missing from my noncustodial parent. I looked on the College Board website, saw that it was already submitted, and emailed SFS with a screenshot of the page saying the document was uploaded. SFS responded with a form email saying they’d reply shortly. A day and a half later, they told me the document was unreadable, and Leanne would need to resubmit it. I wrote to my dad with an apology, asking if he could reach out to her again. Each time I had to ask him to reinitiate contact, I felt the thud of guilt in my stomach. 

An entire month and a half later, I got another form email from SFS saying something was wrong with the application. This time, the portal simply said there was an unspecified discrepancy in my application, and I’d have to contact them for information. I reached out. Four days later, SFS replied that my step-father’s information was left off of the application. I don’t have a step-father. My first instinct was to wonder whether SFS was seriously the one telling me my biological mother had remarried. If that was the case, I didn’t want to know, and why would his information even be necessary for my application? 

After another back-and-forth, SFS clarified that it was my step-mother’s information that was needed, and I notified them that I submitted it. At least this wasn’t really a discretion of personal details about Leanne’s life. Three weeks later, I wrote again to SFS saying that I had still not received aid, though it was months after the expected release date. Once again, they replied that my step-parent was left off of my forms. I directed them to look back in our email thread to see that I had already fixed the issue. Eleven days later, I emailed them again asking for a response about whether the issue was fixed. A different financial aid officer, one not assigned to me, replied that two of my non-custodial parent’s forms were now missing. I sent back screenshots showing the documents were uploaded months ago. SFS replied that the documents had a discrepancy, not that they were missing after all. The fact that they could confuse the two in an email to me suggests that they were scarcely glancing at my files. My father replied, 

“Annie is estranged from her noncustodial parent…It is extremely difficult for Annie to communicate with her and just getting to this level of documentation has been a major effort.” 

He inquired whether they could continue the calculations despite the discrepancy given our unique situation and suggested that they call him if there was a problem. A third financial aid officer replied, without explaining why the name behind the email kept changing, that this wasn’t possible. The officer continued, 

“Now, I can tell you that just looking at the numbers that came through without having been reviewed, it looks like Annie may qualify for some MIT Scholarship aid this year, though likely not much…So it's up to you if you want to continue with the application process, or if you want to just have us review Annie's FAFSA so we can work with you on loan eligibility.” 

This chain of emails shows a lack of attention to detail, failure to follow up, and discontinuity between people administering support. The final email makes me the angriest. The financial aid officer essentially said, if it’s so difficult for you, maybe you shouldn’t apply for aid at all. The numbers would be small, in part because of that third income on the application from Leanne, so apparently my family’s financial need wasn’t worth the effort. It was too complicated for an office at a school whose motto is mens et manus, “mind and hand.” Our university’s mission includes a shared commitment to practical problem solving based on critical thinking, so all offices on campus should strive to meet that ideal. When my situation didn’t fit the neat institutional boxes, that should have provided an interesting challenge to overcome for employees whose work must often seem tedious. 

Of more importance is that it was a challenge involving complex family dynamics, not just numbers and dollar signs. Real people were involved and experiencing pain at each step of the process. When we see people in difficult situations, the instinct should be to reach out, clarify the problem, and provide whatever help is possible. In the four years since I first applied for aid, I never heard a voice or made eye contact with a financial aid officer. What impact does it have on students to explain their stories again and again to a faceless email address hiding a rotating cast of financial aid officers? I have no idea how many people read my emails. Did I owe them my story? Imagine if it had been different. Imagine if when I first presented the difficulty of reaching out to a noncustodial parent, SFS responded with compassion and a phone call. Imagine if they provided all of the relevant information to resolve the problems with my application from the outset, so the process didn’t stretch over months. Imagine if I hadn’t been required to reach out to Leanne in the first place. 

While little scholarly literature addresses the question of noncustodial parents and college financial aid, Ohio State University professor Kaprea Johnson advises college counselors to consider “the time since (or if) there was contact between the student and parent; if a parent has a history of mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, or incarceration; or if the whereabouts of the parent are unknown.” [1] MIT makes the first step toward this with the College Board waiver form, but that document does not include directions for students who have had contact in the past, but not in a long time (eight years now in my case, greater than a third of my lifetime). It also establishes the high barrier of legal documentation and third-party documentation for proof of hardship.

Johnson’s article continues that universities should recognize that noncustodial parents may not be willing to pay toward their child’s education “despite the institution's assumption that he or she will.” The whole financial aid system is built on this assumption, based on out-dated ideas that an American family includes two parents who feel responsibility to provide for their children. If SFS’s goal and mandate is to ensure that cost of attendance will never be a barrier for a qualified student to study at MIT, it is senseless to exclude those students who must take greater personal responsibility for paying for college through no fault of their own. 

Furthermore, Johnson recommends that financial aid officers refer students in complex familial situations to mental health services on campus. When knots of stress took over my shoulders and I felt like other MIT students could never understand this situation, a direct referral to MIT Mental Health and Counseling to coach me through the application process would have been invaluable. 

Recently, I walked into the SFS office to pick up a COVID-19 federal relief check. I asked the receptionist if there was a way to provide feedback to her office. She looked confused, so I rephrased the question. “Not that I know of,” she replied. “You can always email us.” This solidified my suspicions. SFS does not really see students, nor do they want to. 

III. Full Need

The SFS Financial Aid Glossary states that full need “means that we meet 100% of your family’s demonstrated need through scholarships, grants, and student employment.”

Now, here comes the big reveal: I’m not on financial aid. 

I have federal work study designation, but no scholarships or grants for me this year. My family decided to withdraw our application. Instead of getting an MIT scholarship, we took out tens of thousands of dollars of loans under my name. Because I come from a financially stable background, I trust that they will be paid off. Or rather, my dad will pay them off. I already paid over $30,000 toward my education and college expenses by choosing cheaper lifestyle options (no meal plans) and contributing earnings from campus jobs and internships. I’m graduating in seven semesters instead of the typical eight to save money. MIT made the same promise to me as it did to all other undergraduates: need based, need blind, full need

They didn’t deliver. I will be fine. My parents will be fine. But what about the students in my situation who are also reliving childhood trauma each time they are required to get back in touch with absent, neglectful, or abusive noncustodial parents? What if those students can’t afford to give up? Does SFS believe that those students are deserving of aid? Regardless of my own financial situation, did my dad and I have to go through this bureaucratic downpour just to satisfy inane application requirements?

I’m writing this because I don’t let this story out often. I’m writing this because I’m angry. I’m writing this because I am tired and graduating, and I love MIT too much to not work out our issues. I’m writing this because I can’t let it happen to someone else.

So what happens next? To my fellow students reading this essay, I ask that you refrain from making assumptions about your classmates’ financial situations, even when you find out their financial aid status. I can’t be the only one here navigating a relationship (or lack thereof) with a coercive family member, while taking on personal financial responsibility. The greater agents in this story, however, are the administrators with the power to change MIT SFS. 

To them, I ask that SFS streamline their communication and recordkeeping process to prevent the misinformed volleys of questions and half-answers that characterized my email exchanges with them. They should rewrite the language around noncustodial parents to encourage students with unusual situations that don’t include court documents to talk through their options with a financial aid officer. In fact, maybe they shouldn’t make students prove their trauma with court documents to begin with. And they should also pick up the phone and respond promptly when you do call.

In addition, MIT should fund research on the experiences of students with noncustodial parents and how it affected their ability to pay for college. How many students did not apply or withdrew their applications because the burden of obtaining information from their noncustodial parent was too much or even compromised their safety? How many fewer families would be burdened with college debt if extra documents were not required in cases where there is no contact between student and noncustodial parent? MIT SFS should then change their policies accordingly and encourage their peer institutions to do the same. Only then can their promise of need based, need blind, and full need be more than a marketing slogan.

Editor’s note: An exception was made to publish this piece under a pseudonym, in order to protect the identity of the author and to remove identifying information of those involved in the story.

[1] Kaprea F. Johnson. (2020) Symptoms of Anxiety in College Students and the Influence of Social Determinants of Health. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy 0:0, pages 1-16.