At Wesleyan, you often hear the line of reasoning that goes, “Maybe low-income or middle-income students face many challenges, but at least this school gives them lots of money to go here.” This is a misconception. We as a community cannot possibly hope to have intelligent discussions around class until we understand the intricacies of one of the biggest class-related issues to affect Wesleyan students.
Meeting full need is not enough
The cornerstone of Wesleyan’s financial aid system is its commitment to meet families’ “full financial need.” Wesleyan likes to bandy about this pledge as if it were the same thing as giving every student a free ride, but it is not nearly as generous as the University likes to pretend it is.
Full need is defined as the difference between what you can pay and a school’s full cost of attendance. If a school “meets full need,” it covers that gap with grants, loans, and work-study eligibility. We will deal with each aspect of the award in turn; for now, just notice that only one part—grants—is an actual monetary gift.
The proportion of grant money to loan and work-study varies from year to year as your financial situation fluctuates. You are in the highly stressful and unpredictable position of not knowing whether, each August, the University will cover enough of your need with grants or suddenly spring loans on you that you will have no choice but to accept. It introduces a level of unpredictability and stress that more affluent students simply don’t have to worry about.
If you can barely afford to go to Wesleyan and your family is placed in constant financial turmoil, we must acknowledge that meeting full need is not enough. Grant aid should be expanded so that as much as possible of this inequity can be alleviated.
Work-study is a scam
Being work-study eligible means that the University has given you permission to take care of up to $3,000 dollars of your tuition by working for the school.
Most students on work study are washing dishes or performing menial office tasks. It is not uncommon to hear of a student working three jobs at once. A few students, such as myself, are lucky to have rewarding, even fun employment, but the number of bad jobs far outweighs the number of good ones. And even if you like your job, funding is such that most supervisors cannot pay you more than $12/hour, hilarious for such a supposedly progressive university.
And the problems with work run far deeper than being subjected to busy work and poor pay.
First, work-study constitutes a serious blow to the already shaky legitimacy of this university as a meritocratic institution. How can two students’ academic performances be measured side by side when one of them, solely because they are wealthier, is given far more time to write papers and study for exams? Second, work-study isn’t even real aid; it’s just Wesleyan telling you to “get a job.” In this light, Wesleyan’s hullaballoo about “full need” seems even more meaningless; they don’t even provide the aid they say they do.
The need currently met by work-study should be covered by grant aid. Work-study should be available to students who want to lower their cost of attendance beyond their assessed need; it should not be part of the meeting that need itself. Either that or Wesleyan should stop calling itself a school that meets full need.
Student loans are a racket
Do I need to say anything about student loans?
Both work-study and subsidized student loans are policies that originated in the Great Society. Bold for their time, they represented a broad-strokes attempt at solving very large problems. While these programs should not be repealed, I am not the first to suggest that they need to be modified so that they distribute resources in a smarter way. I am forced to resort to clichés, so common is the knowledge that student loans, as they exist, do little more than depress the economy and limit student’s post-graduate options.
A greater portion of awards should consist of grant aid, and the role of loans should be minimized and eventually phased out.
Thing bad, what do?
I have spent a large part of this article diagnosing problems.
In the short term, barring a donation from a wealthy alumnus, the best way to enact all these changes is to support education reform. This solution is the most concrete one I can offer. Some of you may know there is an election coming up. Support candidates who advocate education reform. And if you know someone who is willing to part with $200 million, do send us a letter. You could also steal the Crown Jewels, if you’d like. Every penny helps.
Trent Babington is a member of the class of 2021. Trent can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @trentbabington.