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Students seek transparency with financial aid while University seeks balance

Photo illustration.

Students relying on aid are calling for transparency about the process the University uses to calculate the average student cost.

After a recent email sent to the entire student body, The Office of Scholarships and Student Aid said the average cost of attending the University has decreased, based on information the Office has received from a survey. 

This decrease in cost will result in a decrease in the potential amount of financial aid given, and students who rely on aid fear these future implications.

The University has sought to maintain a constant tuition over the past few years, said Eric Johnson, assistant director of policy & communications for The Office of Scholarships and Student Aid.

Every few years, the University completes a survey to reassess the average costs for a student to attend the University for one year. This figure includes tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation and miscellaneous expenses. The federal government will list this cost alongside information such as graduation rate and salary after attending.

However, especially with the recent decrease in estimated costs of attendance, students on forms of financial aid such as the Carolina Covenant receive less money in their financial aid returns, even as the costs associated with living in Chapel Hill continue to rise with the local economy. One of the effects of this decrease in estimate costs is the cut of automatic funding for health insurance.

According to Johnson, students who rely on University health insurance only need to fill out a form of request, and the Office will honor these requests.

Brittany Becker, a recipient of the Carolina Covenant scholarship, was concerned with filling out this form after she has been billed. 

“To then gamble on a form after I’ve already been billed for something I can’t afford is up in the air,” Becker said. 

The University must strike a balance when determining this cost, said Johnson. The Office yearly conflicts with the desire to pick a cost high enough to accommodate low-resource students, while being cautious about setting the estimate too high that the number would increase student debt.

“There’s always this tension of wanting to pick a number that’s high enough to accommodate students who come in with very few resources and need a tremendous amount of financial aid to make college feasible,” said Johnson, “while also not setting a number that’s so high that it makes our costs look unreasonable and can inflate borrowing. We don’t want people borrowing a lot of money for costs that may or may not be real for their circumstances.”

For some students, these financial aid returns are direly needed.

Jamie Ramos, another Carolina Covenant scholar, struggles to balance budgeting her own expenses, sending money home to her family and paying for the debt she has accumulated from off-campus doctor’s office visits.

Ramos is frustrated by the lack of visibility about the processes by which the University arrives at the average cost of attendance. Ramos did not take any survey similar to what was referenced in the Office’s email, and she does not know anyone who has either. After hearing about the change of aid to be given, she reached out to Carolina Covenant and the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid that day but never received a response.

“The people who are affected by this change are from a lower socioeconomic background, or they don’t have parents who can cover them,” said Becker. “So it’s like you’re disenfranchising the already most vulnerable population on campus.”

Still, both Ramos and Becker were gracious for the resources the Carolina Covenant and Office have provided in the past.

The Office wants to help students, Johnson said, but the question of considering the long term disadvantages of student debt and short term benefits of student aid remains a difficult decision for the University.

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