The Abusive Nature of Financial Aid

CW: Domestic Abuse

Andrew Sebald:

I have one older half-sister, one younger sister, a mother and an abusive father. My mother is an alumna of Middlebury, which is what spurred my interest in Middlebury College.

When I was 14 years old, my mom and dad divorced. The separation was violent. My father had always shown abusive tendencies throughout my life, but his anger had intensified significantly the few months before. He started to physically abuse my mother and older sister, and verbally abused me when I even considered challenging his authoritarian control over my family. On the night before the separation, he called the cops on my mom. She had hidden his eleven guns somewhere in fear that he might transition from fists to bullets.

The police strongly encouraged my father to leave that night. For the sake of wanting to maintain our relationship, I tried my best throughout high school to make inroads with my father. All efforts were unsuccessful, but he still lingered in my family’s life. My mom has testified numerous times in court to prevent him from returning with his abuse and guns. He remains in our lives till this day, and I know he probably will be until my own death.

Middlebury Student Financial Services is complicit in that.

My background, although it may not seem to have much to do with my financial situation, provides necessary information for what later unfolded. By the time I applied for Middlebury my senior year of high school, I had not communicated with or seen my father for the better part of a year. I applied Early Decision 1 for Middlebury. My mom and I absolutely trusted that Student Financial Services (SFS) would grant us sufficient financial aid. There is a “need-blind policy,” after all. After I found out about my acceptance, my mother and I were ecstatic. We truly believed that we would qualify for the non-custodial waiver form for the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile.

A crucial part of the CSS Profile for any Middlebury student with divorced parents lies in the non-custodial waiver. When Middlebury SFS assesses the financial information for all students, they assess the income of both parents or guardians partly through the CSS Profile.  If you have a non-custodial parent who is not in contact with you, getting them to fill out their part of the profile obviously becomes an issue. The non-custodial waiver’s purpose is to waive the non-custodial parent’s information from the CSS Profile, so that only the custodial parent’s financial information will be assessed. There are conditions, including: more than ten years have to have passed since the student has been in contact with their non-custodial parent. Since my father had abused my family in the last ten years, we didn’t qualify.

We filled out the waiver. We were devastated upon receiving a negative response. Student Financial Services contacted my mom and said that if my father didn’t fill out his part of the CSS Profile, I would not be eligible for financial aid, and therefore effectively enrollment at Middlebury for the 2015–2016 academic year. My mom desperately tried to explain to Student Financial Services that my father was not who he seemed to be. Providing court-ordered evidence, my mother informed SFS by email that “since [2012], my ex-husband has not been allowed to have further contact with the children. I do not know what other kind of documentation you need to consider me a single-parent.”

Student Financial Services ignored us. In an email dated Nov. 18, 2014, my mother offered to provide the 911 call record from when my father called the police on her, along with other reports made by therapists and a parent coordinator, to illustrate my father’s abusive nature. SFS never replied.

Instead, they asked to contact my father directly. My father stated he would “do his part” in paying the college for my tuition on the condition that I would meet with him to discuss my college plans with him. In an email dated Dec. 16, 2014, Student Financial Services instructed me to meet with my father and convince him to fill out his part of my CSS Profile. They apparently believed he had the best of intentions.

Due to binding Early Decision, I had no choice but to accept and meet with my father. We talked. The conversation was in public, so thankfully nothing happened. Still, he did not fill out the form until the day after he received news that I had seen a psychiatrist due to severe anxiety and depression arising from the uncertainty of whether or not I would be enrolled at Middlebury College.

Finally, we got our financial aid. My father had signed his name, so I could finally start at the school of my dreams. That was enough. After being forced to meet with him, attend follow-up counseling sessions, and tolerate anxiety-inducing waiting, my mom and I were glad that the process was done. But since we had not qualified for the non-custodial waiver, since I had been in contact with him during the “last ten years,” my mother would have to cover the family contribution burden for both her and my father’s incomes out of her one salary. She makes much less than my father.

My father, to this day, does not contribute a cent.

During the summer after freshman year, my mom informed me that I would have to take a semester off. Paying for the equivalent of two people had severely affected our financial situation. My mom and I called and emailed SFS. We urged them to revise our award substantially, so I could afford to continue attending Middlebury.

SFS wouldn’t budge. Even though my counselor, court-ordered family counselor, and our parent coordinator all showed evidence that my father was not fit to be a custodial parent, Student Financial Services simply said, “Unfortunately, we are not able to change our decision as your father’s information must be included in our decision for you” in an email dated July 6, 2016. They recommended I talk to my commons dean about taking a semester off.

In J-term 2017, we implored Student Financial Services again. My mom sent a letter to the dean of students at the time, Katy Smith Abbott, who was sympathetic to my situation. She met with me, and later contacted SFS’s Kim Downs-Burns to talk about my circumstances. I talked with Downs-Burns, and explained how significantly SFS making me go to meet my father had impacted both me and my family. I left the office feeling optimistic about the conversation. Maybe the situation would finally be resolved. But when I got our second financial aid revision back, we still were unable to afford the semester. The financial aid was not enough. To this day, I still don’t know why.

Thus, I was forced to take a “gap semester” from Middlebury in fall 2017.

In the end, none of our efforts made any difference. Repeated calls, emails and meetings, and yet we were back to square one. We had talked to the dean of students, a representative of the administration, and yet still ended with the same result of insufficient financial aid due to the refusal of SFS to consider my family’s special circumstance. The despair made me remember what a Student Financial Services employee had told us over the phone. I asked, “If my mom went to court with my father and proved that he was not paying child support, would financial services change my financial aid?”

The employee: “We don’t assess financial aid based on who’s paying for tuition, but the ability that both parents have to pay tuition.”

I would hear that same sentence countless times in the future.

Travis Wayne Sanderson:

The same sentence was said multiple times in Community Council, as well.

In early April 2017, Andrew approached me about his story. I urged him to present his case to Community Council (CC). The Council is the only real conversation body on campus that combines all constituencies — students, staff and faculty — and can summon staff members to report on their policies and activities in various departments on campus. We could get to the bottom of the issue. As Co-Chairs that semester, Katy Smith Abbott and I arranged times for both SFS and Andrew to speak to the Council.

On April 11, SFS’s Kim Downs-Burns and Michael McLaughlin were asked to come to Community Council to answer questions. They emphasized at three separate times that financial aid was assessed based on “ability to pay” and not “willingness to pay.” When asked why, the answer was always some variation of “it’s what our peer schools do.”

According to CC minutes, SFS said that each student’s financial aid case is looked at “individually,” each case taken into account as a “whole picture,” accounting for the “complexity in family situations accordingly.” Exceptions can be made, in theory, to stringent policies in the case of — for example — abusive parents. This was stated at 5:02 p.m. (just to be precise), April 11, and is on public record.

Their words are completely at odds with how they treated Andrew’s case.

On April 18, Andrew explained the above story to Community Council. On April 25, Maleka Stewart ’19 and Charles Rainey ’19 presented a recommendation on the matter of Student Financial Services and the non-custodial waiver. They recognized one of the main issues as the ten-year requirement, which Stewart described as “obscure and unattainable.”

SFS became defensive. On May 2, Katy Smith Abbott reported conversation she had had that week with Kim Downs-Burns to Community Council. According to that meeting’s minutes, Middlebury’s standards for financial aid consideration are mandated by its membership in the 568 Group consortium of “need-blind” institutions.

They reported that if willingness to pay is the rule, then anyone can take advantage of the system to get better financial aid. However, if SFS is indeed capable of accounting for the “complexity in family situations accordingly,” they can certainly distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims.

According to the minutes, SFS also informed Katy Smith Abbott that “[SFS’s] policies don’t need to be fixed.”

The 2016–2017 Community Council ended the year without passing the recommendation. We were prevented from action by a combination of time constraints and bylaws confusion. We officially asked the fall 2017 Community Council to review Middlebury’s financial aid policies, particularly the non-custodial waiver form, when the new semester began. Kyle Wright, the fall 2017 co-chair, agreed verbally to take up the case on May 8, 2017.

However, when fall came around, the council apparently had other priorities. According to CC minutes from Oct. 16, 2017, Co-Chair Wright only mentioned the issue in the context of reforming Community Council’s own bylaws. The non-custodial waiver problem itself was left unsolved, and SFS’s questionable policy and policy enforcement unpursued.

I prompted co-chair Baishakhi Taylor and co-chair Tina Brook ’18 to return to the case as co-chair Brook entered her position in J-Term 2018. Co-chair Taylor responded to me in an email dated Feb. 5, 2018, that she “understood Kim Downs-Burns addressed [the issue] when she came to CC last Spring and had a detailed conversation about it.” Co-chair Brook did not reply at all. It is quite possible that they had not read the minutes from spring 2017 that quite clearly illustrated the conversation remained unfinished.

In any case, Community Council also dropped the ball.

Andrew Sebald:

I felt manipulated and lied to by Middlebury’s Student Financial Services. As I stated before, both my mother and I did as much as we could to prove that my father was someone who was not interested in paying for my education, but for almost two years they seemed to brush our questions and qualms aside as if meaningless. Two years is an excruciating amount of time necessary in order to schedule and have a 30-minute appointment with the right person to tell them that the financial aid plan you have been given is thousands of dollars more than you can afford. Policy — which, as Travis noted, is questionably followed — was enough to force me to speak to my abusive father and continue to drain my family and my capacity to continue at Middlebury College.

This article is specifically a critique of the policies of Student Financial Services and how they are being enforced. It is also a critique of the actions of bodies complicit in the continued existence of this problem, like the 2017–2018 Community Council, which failed to take up the issue again until very recently. We hope that the Council follows through with the recommendation they are currently discussing, and returns to supporting students with non-custodial parents on financial aid more actively. The policy has a large impact on the lives of several students here on campus, and the problem cannot continue to remain unspoken within the sunken pockets of Middlebury College students and their parents.

We ask that Middlebury re-consider how it evaluates non-custodial waiver form requests. If “willingness to pay” is not an acceptable rubric, then we ask Student Financial Services to actually follow through on their policy to take the “whole picture” of a student’s complex family situation into account when approving non-custodial waiver forms. Since SFS already claims to do this, as they stated in Community Council, following through should not be an issue.

Secondly, we ask that Student Financial Services look into renegotiating the requirement that non-custodial parents and students not be in contact for ten years to qualify for the waiver. SFS — as well as the 568 Group generally — need to reform financial aid policies that have been put in place before to better suit the needs for students like me at their schools or they need to stop lying about successfully supporting a “need-blind” policy.

Finally, we ask Student Financial Services to reevaluate how they treat student financial aid cases. Instead of treating cases like mine as they do, they could make an active effort to maintain a good relationship with students with non-custodial parents on financial aid at Middlebury. The process is opaque, inaccessible, and decides like a divine force the entire college experience of many students on campus. I applied to this school thinking that our financial aid would be fair based on our circumstances. I applied to this school feeling that my mom would not have to take out loan after loan in order for me to attend here. Frankly, if I had known what was to come, I highly doubt I would have applied to Middlebury College.

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