Tuition, aid leave some with doubt

by Jackie Tempera / Beacon Staff • April 25, 2013

Last June, Sean Clampett said his parents sat him down to talk about what he described as a huge problem. After his first year at Emerson, the current sophomore said he lost  most of his financial aid package. Clampett said he knew if his tuition issue was not resolved, he would be forced to leave Emerson and attend a community college. 

Clampett, a marketing communication major, came to Boston from his hometown of Los Angeles. He said he attends the college with the help of a Dean’s Scholarship, worth $14,000 annually and available to students who ranked at the top of the applicant pool academically. He also was receiving $18,000 annually in financial aid, he said.

But last summer, when the Clampetts were mailed the Emerson tuition bill, the $18,000 sum was cut down to $2,600, even though the family’s financial situation had remained the same, he said. 

“It was the worst feeling,” said Clampett. “It felt unfair, unjust, like I failed.” 

For the next month, Clampett and his father called the Office of Student Financial Services multiple times each day, he said. 

Eventually the college gave Clampett his full aid package back, he said. Clampett said he does not know why the amount changed originally.

Unlike Clampett, some students find themselves deferring or taking out loans to cover costs. Six percent of students with financial aid leave after their freshman years, according to Emerson’s Vice President for Enrollment MJ Knoll-Finn. Ten percent of these students cited financial restrictions as their reason for leaving in a survey, said Knoll-Finn.

The College Board, a company that administers the SATs and provides resources for college applicants, said Emerson College meets 75 percent of students’ financial need. This is average for a college, according to the site.

Emerson’s net cost, or the cost after factoring in financial aid, is less than most competing schools, said Knoll-Finn in an email. Currently, tuition at Emerson is $50,246 per year including room and board, according to the college’s website. Knoll-Finn said on average students receive $15,000 per year in financial aid. 

Some schools similar to Emerson, according to Knoll-Finn, are Northeastern University, Ithaca College, and New York University. Both Northeastern and Ithaca meet 89 percent of student’s financial needs, while NYU meets 59 percent, according to CollegeBoard.org. 

 During the 2013-2014 school year, the college will offer $33.3 million in financial aid, said Knoll-Finn, which represents a six percent increase from the previous school year. The new total will constitute 23 percent of the school’s operating budget, while five years ago, financial aid was 19 percent of the budget, according to Knoll-Finn. 

The college’s Vice President for Administration and Finance Maureen Murphy, said the additional money came from fundraising. The college’s upcoming capital campaign will focus on raising money for scholarships, said Murphy. 

But some students still struggle with unexpected changes in aid packages. Senior Kyna Doles attributed this to a confusing aid application system. 

Doles, a journalism major, said when she received her tuition bill last summer, she was surprised to find she had been charged for the full tuition amount. The scholarship and financial aid package she said she had previously received was gone. Doles said she did not feel comfortable disclosing how much this amounted to. 

After noticing the change, Doles said she called the Office of Student Financial Services to find out what happened. She discovered she had forgotten to fill out a form while applying for financial aid, a mistake that would affect her finances for the entire year.

“It was a nightmare to deal with,” Doles said, as she could not afford to attend Emerson for both semesters of her senior year and instead elected to take classes at a different college for the fall term. “... [the financial aid department staff members] knew I had only turned in half of my financial aid information and didn’t tell me. I knew it was my fault, but it was a treacherous situation.”

Knoll-Finn said the Office of Financial Aid does send students reminders.  

To be considered for financial aid, every student must file the Free Application for Financial Student Aid annually, and incoming students must fill out a College Scholarship Service Profile. Then, according to Knoll-Finn, some students need additional documents. This may include the Noncustodial Parent’s statement, for students with divorced or separated guardians, signed copies of parent’s federal tax returns, signed copies of the student’s federal tax returns, and any other documents requested by the Office of Financial Aid, according to the college’s website. 

Students are responsible for knowing and meeting these deadlines, according to the college’s website. Kimberly MacCormack, a sophomore writing, literature, and publishing and performing arts double major, agreed that students should take the initiative in this process. 

MacCormack said she graduated high school in 2010, and planned to attend Emerson the following fall. When she received her tuition bill, she noticed she did not receive any money from the college. After calling the Office of Financial Aid, she said she found she had not properly filed her FAFSA, and was not eligible for aid. 

In lieu of taking out a loan, MacCormack said she decided to defer attendance for a year, and work at a local clothing store to save money. She said she started at Emerson in the fall of 2011 instead.

“You really have to be vigilant about it, even though it is hard,” she said. “I don’t regret it, because it helped me grow up a lot. You can’t always get what you want, and that’s okay.”