The words, “Total Amount Due” appeared in front of me in jumbled up letters. I darted out of my room across campus to the Bursar’s Office, desperately hoping it was some kind of mix-up that could quickly be fixed.
“I’m sorry, but you have been decertified for the Excelsior Scholarship,” a Bursar manager told me. “You should have known.”
Confused and at a loss for words, I couldn’t help but remember my father’s relief after hearing the news of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tuition-free degree program. I could hear him saying in his thick, Albanian accent, “How lucky! Excelsior will administer on your first year of college.”
In Fall 2017, I started my first semester at Stony Brook University on the pre-med track. Like many undergraduate students on similar paths, I rely on financial aid to pay for college. It is difficult to ensure that degree-applicable credits are going toward programs like TAP, which requires a minimum of 12 credits per semester. This especially applies to students with interests in studies they cannot pursue because of financial aid programs’ eligibility requirements.
I graduated from an early college high school and came to Stony Brook with junior standing — something I easily overlooked while slowly getting accustomed to college life as an antsy freshman. My semester was made up of frequent trips to the financial aid office and undergraduate advising to explain my case: “I depend on the Excelsior Scholarship, and I am on the pre-med track. I know I need to take 30 degree-applicable credits by the end of the year. I do not want to major in biology to cover my pre-med requirements. What can I do to guarantee my eligibility for the scholarship?”
After what felt like countless talks, I was left dissatisfied when I was told by a handful of advisors that because the Excelsior Scholarship was “new,” they didn’t have the slightest idea about how to approach my situation. The growing consensus made me believe that I had to trial-and-error my way through navigating financial aid during my time at SBU.
I decided to follow the advice I was given by leaving my major undeclared, only to find out that I owed full tuition for not satisfying the scholarship’s eligibility requirements.
For months, I blamed my lack of responsibility and certainty for losing a much-needed opportunity to ease the financial burdens that come with being a college student. It wasn’t until I sat down in Liz Montegary’s “Feminist Theory in Context” class that I learned many other students had also felt misled and rejected by promising financial aid programs.
Montegary, an assistant professor in the department of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, spoke about how financial aid can often restrict a student’s ability to fully grow.
“College is a chance to explore new ideas — to figure out who you are as a person, how to ask questions, and how to be creative,” she said. “These are the skills we need if we’re going to build a more just society. I already worry that critical thinking and writing skills are devalued on our campus. The fact that financial aid packages set further limits on what students can study is all the more concerning.”
Academic institutions that prioritize students’ financial needs also need to take into account that fulfilling the 12 credit requirement per semester, in the case of TAP, depends on the courses being offered and student responsibilities that get forgotten. Many students accept financial aid programs out of necessity and end up feeling trapped when they begin to question whether or not they’ll meet eligibility requirements semesters ahead.
TAP recipient and sophomore psychology major, Jonathan Baez, frequently worries about securing the aid he receives. Baez planned on declaring a second major before having to accept that he wouldn’t be able to do so because TAP only factors degree-applicable credits going toward first majors.
“Every semester there’s a scheduling conflict or an issue where I basically have to work my schedule in a way that I’ll be eligible for TAP and other scholarships,” Baez said. “When making my schedule, I can’t really do so by what classes I’m interested in. My priority is to pick ones that will make it so I’m eligible for TAP.”
Baez, who came to Stony Brook with almost all of his Stony Brook Curriculum (SBC) requirements fulfilled, had to take classes in sequences that were not beneficial for him in the long run because of their demanding expectations.
Joly Zakaria, a junior computer engineering major, was decertified for TAP after changing her major, talking to an advisor about the classes she needed to enroll in and not being told that one of them did not count toward her degree.
“I was informed way too late in the semester where I was no longer able to add or drop the class,” she said. “As a result, I was decertified out of the blue. I think by having requirements for eligibility, it makes it harder for students to actually try and branch out to take classes that they might actually be passionate about. They are sort of forced to stick to the major they chose and not explore anything else.”
Financial aid institutions need to consider that students are open to changing their career paths and fields of study. Restricting students to one choice of study and, therefore, the major’s corresponding classes, leaves them with no room to prospect their interests and explore other opportunities.
Financial aid is essential, but we need to be thinking about how it covertly limits students because of its obstructive guidelines. Stony Brook needs to do a better job of acknowledging these consequences and helping students deal with them. As it stands, we’re on our own.