Admitted student turns to GoFundMe amid negotiations over financial aid

Though his initial expected family contribution has since been halved, the student is still staring down nearly $15,000 in college tuition and fees that his father refused to pay.

By Abigail Chang

When Lee* was admitted Early Decision to Middlebury’s class of 2025 this December, he assumed his acceptance letter would soon be followed by a financial aid package covering the full $75,000 price tag. He had informed the college that his father would not pay for his education and that he had not saved enough money to afford tuition on his own. His CSS profile even contained a signed statement from his father and another relative confirming his situation. 

“Middlebury meets the full demonstrated financial need of all admitted students,” according to the affordability section of the admission page, and Lee was confident he met the criteria. Then, he received his financial aid award.

Initially, the college set Lee’s expected family contribution — the portion of the cost of attendance that a student’s family is required to pay — at nearly $30,000. Lee lives with his father, whose income places their household within the bounds of the upper middle class.

But Lee’s father refused to pay the family contribution — kickstarting a months-long process of negotiation, advocacy and crowd-sourcing that many Middlebury community members first became aware of through the circulation of a GoFundMe campaign created by Lu Mila ’24.

The campaign, entitled “Help a Trans Man Attend Middlebury College,” raised over $4,000 in the first four days after Mila set it up, but donations have since plateaued. After a few weeks of fundraising, it still sits under $5,000.

The campaign description provides a snapshot of Lee’s predicament, explaining that he is a trans man living in a red state and that he will soon be homeless if his father follows through on threats to kick him out after he turns 18. The page also describes the response Lee received from the college when he initially raised concerns about his financial aid package. 

“They replied 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,’” the GoFundMe page reads. 

Though donations have slowed, Lee and his advocates have made some progress with revising his financial aid package. Mila, who has known Lee since high school, posted an update to the page on Feb. 22 notifying followers that Lee’s financial aid award had been increased, roughly halving his expected family contribution. 

To get the award increased, Lee had to provide additional documentation of his household’s expenses.

“I had to look for documents of uninsured expenses and find a way to ask my father about it,” he said in an email to The Campus. “I’m lucky that he was in a good mood and answered everything while providing the proof.”

Lee said he began telling the school about his situation at the start of Discover Middlebury, the college’s special visit program for underrepresented students.

“At the end of Discover Middlebury, I was reassured that whatever I struggled with, I would be helped for,” he said.

Confident in the college’s claims about meeting 100% of demonstrated need, Mila encouraged their friend to apply to Middlebury early decision, reassuring him that his financial circumstances would be understood.

The college uses the FAFSA to determine federal financial aid and looks at the CSS profile, personal tax returns and W-2s to calculate family contribution and institutional aid awards. Middlebury is a member of the 568 Presidents Group, a consortium of 21 need-blind institutions that have agreed on a consensus approach for determining financial aid awards. 

Though the GoFundMe campaign may help Lee pay for the 2021–22 academic year, it may cause his expected contribution to increase for the following year. Lee has been in touch with Associate Vice President for Student Financial Services Kim Downs-Burns throughout the financial aid negotiation process, though Downs-Burns said she could not comment on a specific student’s financial aid award when The Campus reached out to her.

Downs-Burns noted that in general, any taxed or untaxed student income from 2021 — even something like GoFundMe earnings — should be reported on federal and institutional financial aid applications for the 2022-23 academic year. A reported increase in income could impact a student’s financial aid package for the following academic year.

“Our need analysis calculations vary depending on the family’s makeup and financial profile which factor into how a student’s contribution is calculated,” Downs-Burns said in an email to The Campus. “Typically most students have only a minimum expected contribution of $2,400. For students who may have higher than ‘typical’ earnings, that student contribution would expect to increase.”

Downs-Burns provided an example, saying that a student’s expected contribution might increase to $5,000 if they reported a total income of $20,000.

This could prove problematic for Lee, whose GoFundMe earnings would create a temporary increase, impacting his financial aid award in 2023-24 even if the money were fully depleted by the tuition cost of the previous year.

Lee said he plans to get a job as soon as he arrives at the college to help him pay for his education.

For students like Lee who need their parents’ finances to be discounted in order to receive adequate financial assistance to attend college, options are limited. One possibility is declaring financial independence on national aid applications like FAFSA, but students must meet certain criteria to do so. 

Undergraduates over the age of 24 can declare independence based solely on their age. All others must prove that they are independent according to other U.S. Department of Education guidelines.

Among these guidelines, which include cases in which an undergraduate is married or a veteran of the U.S. armed forces, the most viable option for Lee is judicial emancipation. This would most likely require that he prove his financial self-sufficiency. However, Lee mentioned a number of factors that have prevented him from getting a job, including his father’s resistance and bigotry among potential employers.

Throughout the ongoing process of revising Lee’s financial aid package, members of the Middlebury community have been advocating for his case. Members of the Student Government Association (SGA) and the Community Council have been working with college administrators to push for changes to Lee’s financial aid package.

First-Year Senator Meg Farley ’24, who has been in touch with Mila and Lee, worked to publicize the GoFundMe campaign and has been exploring both Middlebury-specific and external resources to help find additional funding options.

“I’ve done some research on trying to find grants for trans students going to university or trans BIPOC students going to university,” Farley said. “There’s slim pickings.”

Lee has also received messages of support from alumni. Andrew Sebald ’19, who faced similar financial aid challenges at Middlebury, has been reaching out to students and alumni of various colleges who have faced difficulties while applying for financial aid. 

Lee’s case has attracted a lot of attention among college community members, and students and administrators will consider how to reform the financial aid system in the future, according to Farley.

As of publication, Lee is still in financial limbo. Many students and families have attested to the complexity of the aid application under normal circumstances, but the process has been particularly difficult for Lee.

“I feel guilty every minute of my day for the GoFundMe because I don’t want others to pay for my situation. I feel agitated every second I’m not planning for every scenario or being told updates from others,” he said in an email. “I want to do more and plead my case as much as I can, but I try to remind myself that I’m doing what I can and that I will keep trying, even when I’m on campus.”

*Editor’s note: Lee is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of an admitted student.