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Friday, Jan 28, 2022

Aid, apathy and Middlebury’s unwillingness to pay

<span class="photocreditinline"><a href="">Sabrina Templeton</a></span>

“Help a Trans Asian Man Attend Middlebury College,” reads the header of the GoFundMe page built for Lee (a pseudonym), an incoming student who had been told that he will have to pay $30,000 in tuition on his own. The situation: He lives in an unstable home with a family who refuses to pay for his college and plans to kick him out by the time he turns 18 years old, leaving him homeless. As the organizer of the page writes, Lee has attempted to explain this situation to the Student Financial Services office, but was answered with, “We cannot base our financial aid decisions based on a family's willingness to pay. We base our decisions on a family's ability to pay." 

I am too familiar with this story. I heard this sentence for the first time in 2015, after I was accepted to Middlebury via Early Decision. When my mom and I filled out our part of the CSS profile and the non-custodial waiver petition, our waiver was rejected, and Middlebury ultimately forced me to meet with my abusive father to make him sign his part of the CSS profile. At the time, he was making much more than my mother was. Middlebury footed us a bill that was $30,000 more than we had expected, as per Middlebury’s need-based financial aid calculator. So I, like Lee, was legally bound to Middlebury because of Early Decision, and I, like Lee, found myself in a position that I had not expected to be in, strategically predicting that Middlebury would fit my financial needs proportionately.

In a Campus op-ed from 2018, I detailed how I spent two years desperately attempting to persuade Middlebury to change my financial aid package. I submitted all the legal documents I could, spent countless hours on the phone and attended multiple meetings with financial aid officers. I was forced to take a semester off since the cost was too much for my mom to bear. I talked to what seems like every staffer in the financial aid office, my Commons Dean and the Dean of Students at the time. Nothing changed. I was almost always left with the same response: “We base our decisions on a family’s ability to pay.” 

Currently, Middlebury College claims that it meets 100% of students’ demonstrated financial need on its “Affordability” webpage. It lauds itself as being one of the few dozen undergraduate institutions that do. But how can Middlebury confidently say this for students like Lee, who are told they have to make $30,000 appear in Middlebury’s billing account in a matter of months? It is incredibly frustrating and difficult to understand how Middlebury gets away with this type of behavior, but truthfully, the answer is simple: Middlebury determines the need of every student. It is the financial aid office’s say, and not ours.

It is tempting to say that Lee and I were stuck between a rock and a hard place, but this sentiment implies our struggle materialized by chance or coincidence. Lee has lost the support of his parents, who are culpable in their own right. But Middlebury is the one holding the rope to help him out of the abyss — a rope that is worth over $1 billion, actually. But instead of throwing the rope down to help Lee, they expected him, an 18-year-old who is about to be driven to homelessness, to throw up a $30,000 check. In other words, Middlebury has the ability to pay for Lee’s education but is unwilling to do so.

Middlebury College has stated in these past years that it is working on increasing socioeconomic diversity on campus. In this area, Middlebury’s track record has been lacking. 

The New York Times “Upshot” report from 2017 evinced that 76% of the Middlebury student body came from families belonging in the top quintile of the income bracket. Some efforts have seemingly made way for concrete action. Middlebury SGA passed a bill for JusticeProjects in September 2020, an initiative which reportedly aims to advance diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. But JusticeProjects only benefits students who have already made it to Middlebury College and have jumped over the hurdles of financial aid, not incoming students who are going through the financial aid process. The contradiction between a mission on increasing socioeconomic diversity and refusing to give more aid to a student coming from an unstable home situation only stands to demonstrate the institution’s apathy toward impactful, structural change.

Middlebury College’s dismissal of the financial concerns of students from households of divorce, abuse and estrangement lays heavy on us. Lee and I both specifically planned to apply to Middlebury College with need-based aid in mind, in hopes that our unusual situations would not just be understood but reflected in the financial aid package that would be given to us. However, the financial aid office persistently assessed us on our family’s ability to pay. Many calls for appeals were raised, but our financial aid packages barely changed. As a result, the office’s detached stance only drives us further into our traumas and burgeoning pressures.

As of this writing, Middlebury has reduced Lee’s tuition, but the price tag is still immense, given his current circumstances. The stress that Lee has to pay for his tuition this year is already large enough; the thought of continuing this on for three years is unspeakably daunting. On the other hand, if Lee cannot provide the money needed to pay for his tuition and cannot attend Middlebury, it will force him into homelessness. 

Lee is stuck between a rock and a hard place, and Middlebury College is the last one standing with a rope. 

Andrew Sebald is a member of the class of 2019.