On the evening of June 23, the Office of Student Aid sent an email to all Bowdoin students who had submitted applications to receive financial aid for the 2020-21 academic year announcing that the Fall 2020 aid notification had been posted on the MyAid portal. For many students, the information they found on the portal—particularly the expected parent contribution—sparked a wave of confusion and anxiety.
“When I looked at it, I said to myself, ‘okay, I’m dropping Bowdoin,’ because I definitely couldn’t afford that much,” said Enrico Degrande ’23 in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
In a follow-up email sent five hours later, the Office of Student Aid apologized and revealed that an error had been made in how the estimated cost had initially been displayed.
“In the first version … we inadvertently listed your off campus room and board as a direct cost,” the Office of Student Aid wrote. “This was an error … this $2500 estimate is an indirect cost (not billed) and you will want to include this when making your financial plan … but you will not receive a bill from Bowdoin for these amounts.”
Still, many students were confused about the amount they were being asked to pay.
Given that the College had sent an email to all students during the spring semester announcing that the student contribution—typically $2,300—would be waived, Missy Demczak ’21 expected her overall expected contribution to decrease.
“I was like ‘oh, that’s awesome, that’s going to decrease my bill a good amount already,’” Demczak said in a phone interview with the Orient.
To her surprise, her bill seemed to indicate that her family would be asked to pay the same amount they paid for each semester last year, and she was also confused that her parent contribution was different from the difference between her direct costs and her grant.
“The format of the aid award in the portal should look familiar, but because the costs are different, we understand that it may be confusing and encourage students to connect with student aid if they have any questions about the award,” wrote Whitney Soule, dean of admissions and financial aid, in an email to the Orient.
For the fall 2020 semester, Bowdoin estimates two different sets of direct costs: those for students who will be allowed to return to campus, and those who are expected to be living off campus or at home. Students who will be living on campus and who do not receive any financial aid from the College will be billed $33,935, which includes $27,911 for tuition, $264 for general fees, $2,764.50 for room and $2,995 for board. Students who receive financial aid must subtract their grant from this amount to determine how much they will be billed.
Students living off campus will be charged the same $27,911 tuition as students living on campus, but they will not be charged fees, room or board. Students who receive financial aid must subtract their grant from this amount to determine how much they will be billed.
However, the Office of Student Aid also estimates indirect costs, which normally include books, supplies and personal expenses, and which are factored into the parent contribution on the MyAid portal. The indirect costs are included alongside direct costs in the parent contribution, adding up to a higher number than the actual amount students and their families would be asked to pay to the College. This discrepancy was the main source of confusion for many.
But, for some families, clarifying what they were actually going to be billed created a new set of concerns.
“The second I looked at [the MyAid portal] I was like ‘this is not gonna be great for us,’” said Gillian Raley ’21 in a phone interview with the Orient. “When breaking it down we figured out it was pretty similar to the contribution that they had asked us to make in previous years, but obviously I wasn’t also getting room and board out of that.”
Raley’s parents are still being expected to pay, in some form, the amount listed under “parent contribution,” even if they will not receive a bill for that amount from Bowdoin. For Raley, who has already signed an off-campus lease after receiving permission to do so through the off-campus lottery in the spring, this means that the current financial aid award leaves her family paying more than they’ve had to in previous semesters.
“They were asking us to pay what we had always paid, but they were expecting me to live at home and not receive room and board,” she said.
Raley raised concerns about these cost calculations having different and inequitable outcomes on students who do not receive financial aid and on students who do.
“People who are not on any aid are paying just for the tuition, and obviously they’re not paying room and board because they’re not receiving room and board,” Raley said. “But people who are on aid are just getting their contribution ability measured and so are being asked to pay very similar amounts, but only for tuition. They’re not receiving room and board for the amount that they normally pay, which … is usually on the upper end of what families are able to pay.”
“[The policy] doesn’t recognize the gravity of the situation that we’re in,” she added, referring to COVID-19 and the accompanying recession.
For students such as Raley, who have already committed to living off campus, and for students who anticipate having to find alternative housing because of home environments not conducive to remote learning, the indirect costs that were factored into the parent contribution may not cover the costs they will actually incur in living elsewhere. This is true both for students who have received grants that fully or partially cover indirect costs and for students who have not.
Melissa Magrath ’22, who lives in rural Maryland, explained that the internet connection in her home is not strong enough for her to participate in classes via Zoom. When she reached out to the College during the spring semester about this problem, she received a list of providers that sell hotspots, but she was not given any additional financial assistance. With the closest free hotspot located 45 minutes away from her house at a McDonald’s, she and her family paid a significant sum to purchase hotspots for their home. But once they had them installed, Magrath’s family found that they did not work effectively.
In outlining her thinking about the fall, Magrath cited the inadequate technology and a home environment that, in the spring, proved not to be conducive to remote learning for other reasons as well.
“That didn’t really work out for me,” she said. “So I do want to live somewhere else, and that makes the indirect cost that much more.”
During an initial conversation with a staff member at the Office of Student Aid, Magrath explained that her costs were likely going to exceed the estimates the Office had used to calculate her aid. For example, traveling costs are estimated at $0 for all students who have not been invited back to campus, and room and board is estimated at $2,500. In response to her concerns, Magrath was told that the Office does not typically adjust financial aid for people who “choose” not to live at home.
“I was like, ‘well, I’m not choosing willingly,’” she said. “It is not a conducive learning environment and I also don’t have good [internet] connection. How am I supposed to attend classes there?”
In an email to the Orient, Soule affirmed that the Office of Student Aid is committed to meeting students’ and families’ needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Bowdoin has always had an opportunity for families to appeal an aid award or let us know if their financial circumstances have changed and we are happy to review,” she wrote. “We expect student aid to cover a higher proportion of costs … in part because we are responding to families’ changing finances due to COVID-19.”
Magrath is asking the Office of Student Aid to review her aid package, as are Raley and Degrande.
Raley, who is navigating the repeal process for the first time, found it at first to be “less feasible” than expected.
“On the website, it says that you’re only allowed to appeal [your package] if there’s a 15 percent change in your income, which is a lot,” she said. “For us, even a five percent change in my parents’ income would make us completely unable to pay what they’re asking us to pay, especially because Bowdoin’s whole thing is that they measure what your contribution is—like the most that you’re able to contribute—and then they expect you to pay that much. But that means that, for many families … that’s on the upper end of what they’re physically able to pay out of their income.”
Raley also said that she has had conversations with other students who receive financial aid, leading her to identify a broad connection between parent wages in an average year and their income and employment security during COVID-19.
“Especially for people that are on significant aid, that is also correlating right now with job precariousness and potential random cuts in salaries based on external forces that not even their employers can control,” she said.
At the conclusion of her appeal process, though, Raley was ultimately satisfied with the new amount that she and her family are expected to pay.
“My family’s appeal ended up going pretty well, though at first the presentation of our updated aid information made it seem like it hadn’t changed at all,” she wrote in a message to the Orient. “But once we received a more detailed explanation, it became clear that [the Office of Student Aid] had honored my lease for the upcoming year and factored that into how much my family would be able to contribute.”
Degrande’s family’s financial situation has changed significantly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Degrande, an international student from Brazil, reached out to the Office of Student Aid about his changed circumstances in May, and he was told that it would be easier to wait for his financial aid decision to come out and to then ask for a review. This meant that his initial estimate did not reflect his family’s changed circumstances. Still, he was confused to see that his expected contribution had not stayed the same but rather had drastically increased since last year.
“I sent them an email about, ‘you know, I can’t afford this, what documents do I need to send you?’” Degrande said. “They actually answered me and … gave me the reason why my expected contribution would increase so much, and it was actually because they thought my sister had, I don’t know, either finished or dropped college because they said that she was no longer enrolled in an undergraduate program, which is not true—she just finished her second year of college.”
Degrande said he has had positive experiences working with the Office of Student Aid in the past, and he is hopeful that the review process will lead to a new package that sufficiently addresses both his family’s new circumstances and his sister’s continued enrollment. But he also said that he may have to consider permanently leaving Bowdoin if his aid package is not significantly adjusted.
On the other hand, the Orient did receive anonymous comments from students who were satisfied with their aid package and experience with the Office of Student Aid, both through its anonymous tip line and in its survey about students’ reactions to the College’s plans for the fall semester.
“I was satisfied with my financial aid. They covered everything,” one student reported in an anonymous tip.
“I get very helpful need-based aid, so I am personally more concerned with taking classes online,” a member of the class of 2023 wrote in the Orient survey.
Still, many students reported dissatisfaction with their aid package and with their interactions with the Office of Student Aid. Many also cited finances as a major factor in their own process of planning for the fall, particularly when it came to the decision about whether to take a personal leave of absence. In the survey, respondents were asked to rank the factors they were considering in order of importance. With other choices including academics, health and the College’s leave of absence policy, roughly 41 percent of the class of 2024, 57 percent of the class of 2023, 62 percent of the class of 2022 and 61 percent of the class of 2021 saw finances as one of their top three most important factors in planning for the fall semester.
In the comments, multiple students identified financial aid specifically as their main concern with potentially taking time off.
“I am grateful to be on significant but partial financial aid,” wrote one member of the class of 2023. “However, my financial aid grant decreases every year. Replacing a sophomore fall with a potential fifth year fall would likely be a $10,000 tuition fee.”
While Bowdoin does use the same process to calculate need-based aid every year, multiple students still reported annual decreases in their grant money. In addition, many students and their families have taken out loans to finance their expected contribution, which further complicate the process of taking a semester off.
“My concern is that I’ll have to take an extra semester off than I’d like to under this new leave policy, and that I won’t be able to pay back the loans that I’ve taken out for the past two years for the amount of time they want me to take off,” wrote a member of the class of 2022 in the recent Orient survey.
Many loans allow students to wait six months after they graduate college before they have to start making payments, but this “grace period” may be contingent on them being enrolled. If, under the College’s updated leave of absence policy, a student is unable to return to Bowdoin after one semester, they may have to start making payments during their leave. They may be able to stop making payments once they re-enroll, but they would likely have to recommence immediately upon graduating Bowdoin.
Magrath, who has taken out student loans, is also concerned about the negative impact a personal leave of absence would have on her brother’s financial aid package for medical school. The combination of these factors, the College’s policies regarding the upcoming semester and her initial financial aid decision, has left her feeling torn about whether she should enroll in the fall.
Citing a desire to hear and amplify other people’s struggles and echoing the voices of many students who have advocated on behalf of friends and acquaintances, Magrath’s concerns extend beyond her own situation.
“I just feel like none of [the College’s planning for the fall] really provides a plan for people who are low-income or first-generation or international students,” she said. “It’s just so frustrating that Bowdoin, of all places, would do this, because I feel like that’s their claim to fame … being an inclusive institution that considers and meets everyone’s needs. But that’s just not the case.”
Lily Randall contributed to this report.