The Forgotten Population

By August 1, 2015In My Opinion, news

Traci Deraco Ginnona, Class of 1984

Elation. Excitement. Joy. Anticipation. Relief.

Imagine these emotions when your son or daughter is accepted to college, especially his or her first choice. For us, that college is The Pennsylvania State University, University Park Campus. This new journey has many steps and decisions, including filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), reviewing offers, making the final decisions, graduating from high school, shopping for dorm supplies, scheduling classes, picking dining options, etc. In the midst of the celebrations, most parents and students dread seeing the following message: TUITION BILL. PAYMENT DUE: XX/XX/2015.

For many, one of the most important aspects of the final decision involves the question “How do we pay for this?” In my opinion, Payment Due doesn’t have to be a dreaded phrase, even for students attending Penn State, a university not known for offering large financial aid packages. Although students and their families can pursue options such as loans and outside scholarships, I believe Penn State should consider additional means of providing financial aid to more incoming and current students.

One may ask, “What’s right about Penn State?” Penn State provides a quality education. It’s been cited as a top university for return on investment in the region, engineering, and business.  In addition, Dr. Eric Barron, President of Penn State, has been exploring ways to offer more help for students in terms of incentives.

In Fall 2014, more than 38,500 full-time undergraduate students enrolled at Penn State; about two-thirds of these students applied for financial aid. Approximately one-quarter did not receive any grants, scholarships, or other need-based aid; this included over 700 students who actually met requirements for financial need. That leaves almost 6,000 students who applied for, but were left without, any need-based financial aid.

Colleges and universities such as Penn State should consider revising merit aid and legacy programs, as much as possible, and/or extending incentives to a larger population of students—including the forgotten population—to provide a bit more financial relief to families with a college-bound child.

In 2014, I attended two events in which Dr. Barron presented his plan. Despite limited funding from the state, Dr. Barron is proposing ways to help students at Penn State ease the financial burden of rising tuition costs and after-graduation loan payments and graduate on time. I applaud him for this effort. However, from what I understand, students who will benefit may be only those with demonstrated financial need. The FAFSA is a good start for identifying students with the greatest financial need, those who cannot attend college without help from the state and federal government. The FAFSA is not kind to those who fall outside the mandated income cutoff amounts, and options for these students may be limited to an unsubsidized Stafford loan that covers only a small portion of the annual costs. I believe Penn State should try to reach a larger segment of the student population, in particular, those who are not eligible for any state or federal aid, but for whom financing an education at Penn State may be difficult—the “forgotten population.”

This sparks me to wonder, “What could be better at Penn State?” In my opinion, Penn State should explore ways in which to improve its merit aid (non–need based aid) program. In Fall 2014, more than 38,500 full-time undergraduate students enrolled at Penn State; about two-thirds of these students applied for financial aid. Approximately one-quarter did not receive any grants, scholarships, or other need-based aid; this included over 700 students who actually met requirements for financial need. That leaves almost 6,000 students who applied for, but were left without, any need-based financial aid. More information is available in the 2014–2015 Common Data Set (CDS).

Many colleges and universities award merit aid to students who meet certain criteria or discounts/scholarships to those with legacy. Non–need based aid at Penn State appears to be very limited and awarded to about 10% of all enrolled undergraduate students; this aid may include, for example, scholarships for ROTC and Schreyer Honors College. In the 2014–2015 CDS, Penn State reports that its institutional, non–need based aid includes academics, alumni affiliation, athletics, and ROTC. When our daughter transferred to Penn State in 2008, I asked about discounts or other awards for legacy. The representative told me the only consideration regarding legacy is for admission if a student is borderline for acceptance; with a college GPA of 3.7+, our daughter was more than qualified. Our son, who had a high school GPA of 3.7+ and excellent academic qualifications, is an incoming freshman for Fall 2015 at University Park, with double legacy. This time, Penn State said it doesn’t consider legacy. I wonder how many students with alumni affiliations are not receiving the CDS reported alumni-related aid.

When our son was young, he told us he could “see himself” at Penn State. I told him everything he needed to do to be accepted at University Park Campus his freshman year, and he met or exceeded those goals. He, like many other students, was offered substantial merit aid at another university. However, his heart remains with Penn State. I wish Penn State would find a way to reward more students who work hard and dedicate themselves to be all-around excellent students and citizens, regardless of financial need. Perhaps Penn State could designate one or two larger academic scholarships on top of any already established plus a number of smaller grants. In addition, even a small, one-time alumni legacy award (less than $1,000) would make a difference. I hope that Dr. Barron will consider these options in his proposed plan and/or offer some of the incentives to students who don’t necessarily qualify for need-based grants and scholarships.

Parents and students with limited or no financial aid options should consider applying for Penn State alumni chapter scholarships (if the respective chapter offers one) and outside scholarships. Otherwise, working through college and applying for loans, situations Dr. Barron addresses in his proposed plan, may be some of the only other options to pay for college. Colleges and universities such as Penn State should consider revising merit aid and legacy programs, as much as possible, and/or extending incentives to a larger population of students—including the forgotten population—to provide a bit more financial relief to families with a college-bound child.

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