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Fitting the Bill

Alika Ting ’25 was on shift at her summer research job in August 2023 when she received an email notifying her of an update in her financial aid portal. At first glance, she felt relieved: she had spent months waiting to receive her financial aid letter, and she was eager to put her worries to rest. But when she opened the message, she learned that after two years of attending Yale on substantial aid, she would be receiving none at all for the upcoming school year. The term bill had been due in July.

Distraught, she left her desk to call her parents. They were baffled. Since they had seen no changes to their finances over the past year, they knew there must have been a mistake. Anxious to fix the problem before the start of classes, Ting rang up the financial aid office to ask about appealing her aid package.

“I was kind of a mess. And I was kind of questioning whether I would take a gap year,” she said. “My parents were telling me that no matter what, I was going to be able to go back to Yale, but I think they were also going through the stress of thinking about, are we asking our family members to borrow money? Are we taking out a loan? Are we going to sell a car?” 

In her early calls to the office, Ting recalled being “scolded” and having her concerns dismissed. When she began to cry during a conversation with one counselor, she remembers them saying that crying would not do anything for her. She eventually connected with an  aid counselor who comforted her and clarified the appeals process over a Zoom meeting.

In September, the financial aid office discovered that the family’s home value was accidentally counted twice on their CSS profile, a College Board-run application used by universities and scholarships to determine institutional aid awards. They approved Ting’s appeal and canceled the late fees she had racked up. But her financial aid package was still half the amount of money she had received the previous year, despite the fact that Ting said this mistake was the only change in the family’s finances. When she asked why her scholarship had dropped, she was told it was because her parents’ incomes or assets had increased—the same message she received after her house had been mistakenly counted twice. No one gave her further explanation.

This wasn’t the first time Ting’s aid decreased without any major changes to her family’s finances. From her first year to her sophomore year, her aid had also been cut in half after her older sister graduated from college, even though her sister paid for college through a large scholarship and loans with no parent payments. Now receiving a quarter of the aid she was awarded when she began at Yale, Ting picked up three more jobs on campus, borrowed money from family members, and, for the first time, took out loans from the government.

I spoke to seventeen students who have experienced problems with financial aid during their time at Yale, including decreases to aid packages, awards they say failed to reflect their family’s ability to pay, long delays in receiving awards and appeal updates, errors in aid packages, and more. Like Ting, most said that they had to contend with either “radio silence” from the office for weeks in the past, and, in several cases, disrespectful and dismissive treatment from staff. 

In the spring and summer of 2023, the undergraduate financial aid office hired four new staffers and a new director, Kari DiFonzo, who replaced Scott Wallace-Juedes after he departed for a position at New York University in February. The office also announced several sweeping initiatives this school year. These changes included increases to travel stipends for all students who receive aid, a streamlined aid reapplication process for returning students, and the introduction of personal financial aid counselors assigned to each student.

Meanwhile, doubts over its commitment to equity and affordability loomed on the national stage. On January 27, days after the personal financial aid counselor program was announced, Yale agreed to pay $18.5 million to settle a class action lawsuit opened in 2002. The lawsuit alleged that Yale colluded with sixteen other elite universities in a “cartel” to limit financial aid and overcharge students, favoring wealthy applicants in violation of their need-blind policies.  A University spokesperson said in a statement that Yale admitted no wrongdoing and that “Yale College’s financial aid offers meet the full financial need of each student, with none of the aid in the form of repayable loans.”

But who gets to determine what constitutes “full financial need”? 

The conversations I had with advocates, administrators, and students who have encountered problems with aid in recent years reflected a continuing disconnect between the office’s understanding of student experiences and the realities that many students and families must contend with. Moreover, many of the students spoke about experiencing disrespectful and dismissive treatment from aid counselors this semester, walking away feeling distressed and unheard as they grapple with hefty financial and emotional pressures.

Of the 994 students on financial aid who completed the Yale College Council’s fall 2023 survey, 33.3 percent reported that their financial aid packages had “changed significantly from year-to-year.” About 46.7 percent of these students said they didn’t know why.

Each student’s internal file includes an explanation, but these notes aren’t sent to students when their award changes. DiFonzo said she thinks the office should be more communicative about their decisions upfront, acknowledging that the top concern among students she meets with is confusion over changes to their aid awards.

There are two main reasons, according to DiFonzo, that students’ aid packages change: one, shifts in a family’s assets and incomes; and two, a student’s sibling enrolling in or graduating from a four-year college. 

As DiFonzo put it, even if parents “may not be paying a penny to that other institution,” it’s protocol for the financial aid office to cut the student’s award in half once the sibling graduates college. This reduction in tuition does not apply when a student’s sibling attends graduate or professional school.

The policy is intended to provide financial relief for families when they have multiple children enrolled in college at once; when their other child graduates, aid packages change to reflect what the family would have previously paid if they only had one child in college. But many families are unaware of how drastically their award can change upon their other child’s graduation. The policy isn’t mentioned anywhere on the financial aid office’s website, nor is there a disclaimer about future cuts included in aid letters before the sibling graduates.

“It creates a lot of consternation among families, but I think they understand it, if they’re paying multiple tuitions that we would try to account for that in the financial aid package,” said Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid. “I think people are surprised by it, but I don’t think I’ve heard any criticisms about it being unfair.”

Many students disagree. Some felt like it was a “bait-and-switch” that overestimated the extent to which family finances shift in the years after a sibling’s graduation. Several students attested to aid cuts, including those whose siblings paid little or nothing for their education.

“My parents’ ability to contribute doesn’t automatically change. They don’t have all this freed-up cash that is suddenly available,” said Ivana Nique ’26, whose aid was cut after her sister graduated from the University of Connecticut. “So the fact that it’s not a case-by-case basis is completely ridiculous.”

DiFonzo and Quinlan insisted that the financial aid office reviews appeals in a very personalized manner. DiFonzo emphasized the importance of communication with students, stating that when students are able to explain extenuating circumstances that impact finances, the office may be able to “move the needle” on their packages.

“If you can show us that there are special circumstances that you would like us to consider, there are high out of pocket medical expenses, you’re supporting additional family that don’t live in your household… we may be able to change the bottom line a little bit,” DiFonzo said.

Nonetheless, several students whose awards dropped after a change to their parents’ assets or income stressed that counselors failed to understand the complexities of their family’s finances. From 2022 to 2023, Judy Nguyen ’26 went from having 100 percent to only 45 percent of her costs covered by her Yale scholarship. The cut was in response to her single mother’s nail salon receiving government relief funding, which was counted as income, and improving its profits after the height of the pandemic. When she filled out the FAFSA form several months earlier, her family’s expected contribution for the year was estimated to be about $29,000, which was $21,000 less than what Yale ultimately charged when she received her aid letter. The family felt blindsided.

Nguyen lamented that even after she, her mother, and her mother’s accountant attempted to demonstrate that most of the increased profit went back into the salon and employees’ expenses—including a mortgage for an employee’s home—the office refused to budge. Given that much of the money reported in their 2021 tax return also came from one-time government funding used to pay for personal protective equipment and pandemic wages, Nguyen petitioned for the office to consider finances from 2022 instead. 

“We did look at your family’s taxes and there may be a slightly lower parent share next year but the committee was not in favor of moving to your family’s 2022 taxes when this year we are using 2021,” a counselor wrote in an email to Nguyen. “If you or your parent needs to consider a student or parent loan please let us know I have attached both forms to this email. There will be no further change to our 2324 [sic] award.” 

Nguyen gave up on appeals after her second one failed in October. Scrambling to pay her $50,000 bill without the funds needed for it, the family took out loans.

In its pitch toward prospective students and families, Yale’s admissions office states that the university’s financial aid practices “ensure that 100 percent of every undergraduate’s demonstrated need is met with a package that does not include loans.” But about 15 percent  of students do graduate with debt, even if aid packages themselves do not contain loans. Mark Dunn, senior associate director for outreach and recruitment at the admissions office, wrote to me that Yale representatives are “proactive” in informing admitted students that loans are an option, and that this does not detract from Yale’s claim that it meets 100 percent  of a family’s demonstrated need.

“It is not a sound assumption that those who opt for a loan could not otherwise afford to cover their net cost on a regular payment schedule,” Dunn noted. “There are also many reasons why students and families may opt to use a loan to cover some or all of their net cost…Many students and families simply appreciate the option to defer payments and spread them out over a longer term.”

Of the students I spoke with, several who took out loans felt differently. They argued that their aid packages asked them to pay well over what they believed they would need to under Yale’s financial aid calculation system. According to Yale’s financial aid policy, families making under $75,000 per year with typical assets generally qualify for a zero percent  parent share. And families making between $75,000 and $200,000 are generally meant to contribute anywhere from one percent to twenty percent of their annual income following a sliding scale. 

Some students, however, said that they were charged higher than anticipated given the twenty percent upper limit. When Josh Atwater ’24 was admitted to Yale in the spring of 2019, he was shocked to see his cost of attendance after aid was $53,813—more than a quarter of his blended family’s gross income. This allotment was especially surprising given that his family had “no assets, no savings,” and a mortgage that they hadn’t started paying off. Atwater said that the vast majority of his family’s earnings, calculated based on his stepfather’s income and mother’s annual Social Security disability payments of $15,000, went to day-to-day costs, leaving them living paycheck-to-paycheck.

He argued that the aid formula failed to take into account the unique division of finances in blended households. Though the family successfully appealed the award before Atwater started his first year, they were still asked to pay $20,000, far more than what they felt they could afford. By his junior year, Atwater said his family had racked up about $60,000 in loans, $48,000 of which was in his mother’s name and $12,000 of which was in his own. Overwhelmed, Atwater decided to appeal again.

“At this point, I’m also thinking, my mom is permanently disabled. She cannot work. She’s in pain all the time. And here she is, with $48,000 of debt,” Atwater said. “Like, why am I asking my disabled mother to take this much debt to pay for my education?”

At the end of a tumultuous September 2022 and multiple appeal efforts, during which he said he was met with outright hostility and dismissive attitudes from staff, the office ultimately decided to switch him to a full aid package. 

“I was offended, honestly, that I had spent so long writing off on all of these loans and taking on this subconscious burden, taking on so much debt for myself, to then see that a handful of people behind a Zoom screen or behind closed doors can just click two buttons in their system and… so radically fix my situation,” Atwater reflected. He added that the switch occurred after an aid officer repeatedly had told him outright that they did not believe he would not get approved for more aid. “But of course, it didn’t fix the debt that I already have.”

Yale’s financial aid formula takes into account family size and income; assets like homes, businesses, and investments; and a protected portion of finances called “allowances” used to pay for students’ day-to-day expenses like food. Allowances for each family are determined according to tables provided to Yale by the College Board, which uses consumer expenditure data and other factors to crunch costs of living. DiFonzo added that it isn’t a “cash flow formula” that takes into account individual expenditure choices.

“We also recognize that two families who have very similar circumstances may make very different decisions. One of them may live in a house that costs a lot more than the other to live in; one of them may drive much nicer cars than the other,” DiFonzo said. “Those are all because of choices that families make. We have to have consistent policies, which may not always treat every family exactly the same way.”

All current and admitted students have the option to appeal their financial aid packages if they feel awards fail to reflect their family’s ability to pay. To request a review of their aid package, a student must submit an appeal form that includes a personal statement and, if applicable, documentation of changes in financial circumstances like medical expenses or home damages. Quinlan estimated that about twenty percent of students appeal each year, about ten percent of whom are returning students. 

DiFonzo acknowledged that the information used to calculate some aspects of aid can be outdated. She pointed to the fact that for the 2023-2024 school year, calculations for travel stipends used data from 2009. The calculation will be updated to reflect current costs of transportations for the next academic year.

The newest iteration of the office’s family contribution and aid formula , approved in 2022, only applies to the class of 2027 onward. DiFonzo and Quinlan told me the new formula is more generous to middle-income families than the old formula, as it uses the latest (2019) version of the College Board’s expenditure tables which give larger allowances for living expenses. It wasn’t applied to aid calculations for the classes of 2026, 2025, or 2024 this year, leaving the older students “grandfathered,” in DiFonzo’s words, into the old system. DiFonzo said that she thinks the decision to exclude the upper three classes came due to cost considerations, while Quinlan did not address my question about it.

“This selective policy is absurd and seems to prioritize accepted student retention, rather than financial ‘equity,’ a phrase the institution likes to use but seems to not understand,” said YCC Chief of Staff Viktor Kagan ’24, who previously advocated for students on aid as a YCC senator for two years. 

There’s a fundamental difference between the financial aid office’s assessment of what families can afford and the assessment of the families themselves. “That’s one of the biggest disconnects in the work we do,” DiFonzo noted. “We measure a family’s ability to pay for college, and not their willingness.”

This, according to DiFonzo, is where the conversation of a prospective student’s “financial fit” for the institution comes into the picture. It’s common among students who don’t expect their parents to contribute to their education for any reason, which ranges from parents’ lack of available funds to a noncustodial parent’s unwillingness to financially support their child. Stephan Oliveira ’24, for one, needed to include his estranged father’s finances on his first aid application as a sophomore transfer student, even though his father hadn’t contributed towards costs for extracurricular activities, major surgeries, and day-to-day expenses throughout most of his life. 

The next year, after he learned students could petition to waive noncustodial parents’ finances from consideration under limited circumstances, he appealed multiple times and sent nearly a dozen emails pleading for updates before his request was approved. Yale states that, regardless of whether or not a student’s biological parents are living together or are each financially supporting their child, “both parents have a responsibility to contribute toward their child’s college education.” Furthermore, Yale states that a parent’s mere “unwillingness to pay is not sufficient grounds for a waiver approval.” But as Oliveira and others argued, the office disregards that parents’ actions and finances are not within a student’s control. Oliveira bears the task of affording college on his own — in addition to his father’s nonexistent contribution, he receives no financial support from his mother and stepfather, but their finances are not excluded from his package.

“I work upwards of twenty hours a week to be able to afford my rent and utilities,” Oliveira said. “It makes me mad, because I’m sitting here trying to scramble to figure out whether I need to take on more shifts on my off-campus job.”

During her first week at the helm of the undergraduate financial aid office in August 2023, DiFonzo was welcomed with an unpleasant surprise. She knew that the office was at “a critical point” in customer service, but she hadn’t expected to learn that nearly 1,000 emails from students and families were sitting unanswered in the office’s inbox. Some of them dated back as far as nine weeks.

Aside from Wallace-Juedes, four other staff left their roles in the spring. With only ten people in the office tasked with handling operations, DiFonzo said employees found themselves stretched too thin to handle the flood of calls, voicemails, and emails from students and families.

From the get-go, DiFonzo told all fifteen of her staffers she needed all hands on deck to tackle the mountain of unanswered queries and unread appeals and applications. By the end of October, the office was able to make its way through the backlog, close appeals cases, and send many students long-awaited aid letters. By the end of the semester, DiFonzo said that according to data on the office’s customer service software, the average wait time for responses to students’ inquiries plummeted from twenty-two days to 2.4 days.

Most students told me they experienced far shorter wait times in the fall of 2023 than in previous semesters. But even with the improved timing, many students said that these changes don’t address experiences in which some staff members treated them with disregard or outright scorn. 

In one email exchange dated December 13, 2023—almost four months after the customer service overhaul began—Andrew West ’25 sent a short message asking a counselor for clarity on whether Yale would pay for his study abroad program directly or through reimbursement. He’d received conflicting information from the counselor themself in previous correspondence as most recently, they had said Yale would pay directly. But program administrators told him the opposite after he raised the question about aid at a meeting with other students studying abroad. In their response, the officer answered West’s question before taking aim at West himself.

“Andrew, please understand that not all students are on aid and some students will need to pay their invoice 100 percent. You are fortunate to have financial aid to assist you,” they wrote in the email, which West forwarded to me. “Its [sic] important to keep in mind who is also in the audience when attending a large group meeting.”

Though students recalled negative experiences with several different staffers, the counselor who criticized West was also named by eight others.

While “pouring [his] heart out” on a 2022 Zoom call with the same counselor about the $60,000 he’d accumulated in debt and his parents’ inability to assist with expenses like rent, Atwater recalled that they cut him off to say it sounded like his parents had a money management issue. Later on the call, he remembers them telling him that sometimes, there are students who shouldn’t have come to Yale if they couldn’t afford it. Atwater showed me notes he took during the meeting, which included the lines “‘wasn’t the best option to choose if they can’t cover it,’” “used the phrase ‘can’t afford’ multiple times,” and “‘should not have come to Yale.’”

After the email incident, West reported this counselor to DiFonzo, who met with West in person to discuss the message and apologize for the counselor’s unprofessional conduct. When students reach out to her about poor interactions, DiFonzo said she always meets with them to review the situation before addressing the officers involved directly. She said that she hopes to bring in a consultant to help counselors “work through what some of the reactions that we have as humans, versus what we actually say to people.”

Given the complexities surrounding students’ individual interactions with aid counselors, DiFonzo noted the ample room for improvements in customer service. Quinlan, who recently commenced his third five-year term directing admissions, chose to focus on improvements to poor responsiveness when I asked about his impression of customer service issues and ideas for further solutions.

“I think, honestly, we’ve solved those problems… from the spring and summer. We had multiple openings on the administrative side, and we’ve filled those positions,” Quinlan said. He mentioned the new personal counselor program, which pairs up to five hundred students with one member of the financial aid office. 

Most students I spoke with agreed that personal financial aid counselors could alleviate many customer service issues, as having a consistent contact who is familiar with their situation prevents the confusion of bouncing between different officers. But for individual students, the new policy is only as effective as their assigned counselor. West, for example, was assigned the same counselor he reported to DiFonzo for unprofessional behavior.

When I spoke to advocates for policy change and student support in the Yale College Council and in activist group Students Unite Now, they reflected on their engagement with the financial aid office with a mix of optimism and disappointment. SUN members wrote to me that some major policy changes have only come after years of diligent advocacy and lobbying by students. 

The group noted inconsistencies in administrators’ attitudes towards policies. In 2017, Quinlan stated that eliminating the student income contribution could be financially harmful for Yale and speculated that it could result in implementing need-aware admissions or reworking parent contribution calculations. In 2021, Yale eliminated the student income contribution while staying need-blind and without reported adverse effects to other calculations. 

DiFonzo told me that in part, the Financial Aid Working Group, a body composed of administrators that reviews policies for potential change, often asks itself, “what does the University feel it can afford?” when considering adjustments.

It is a misconception that Yale is unwilling to budge on its financial aid policies. In the past, the Financial Aid Working Group has made widely-lauded decisions like the elimination of the student income contribution and raising the threshold for the zero parent share to households making up to $75,000 per year. Usually, about four to six policies go before the committee for review each year. Proposal approval rates vary from year to year.

“It took thousands of SUN petition signatures, hundreds of testimony letters and speeches, and dozens of rallies and demonstrations for Yale administrators to meaningfully eliminate the billed Student Income Contribution in 2021,” SUN organizers wrote in a statement to me. “Today, there are still many costs of attendance that Yale expects students to cover as the Student Effort, from flights to textbooks to medical expenses to basic necessities.”

This academic year, members of the YCC financial policy team have met with office administrators three times. Financial policy team deputy director Celene Bennett ’26 said that though the conversations have been “extraordinarily helpful” in facilitating student-office communication and that DiFonzo has been particularly receptive to feedback, some talks on policy change have been “disappointing.” She also noted that though administrators were supportive of select YCC policy change efforts, “they deferred to higher university administration or other offices to enact change.”

“For example, we discussed current policy on outside scholarships, late fees, and raising the household income threshold for a zero parent share—each of which were either out of reach due to peer university precedent or a general inability of the financial aid office to restructure its policies,” Bennett wrote to me. “It’s really disappointing, but Yale gets away with unfair policies simply because other universities are doing the same.”

Yale was implicated in the recently-settled antitrust lawsuit due to its collaboration with over a dozen other elite need-blind universities who shared aid formulas in the now-dissolved 568 Presidents group. Seven of the universities have also agreed to settle thus far. In its news release, the University insisted that settling “allows the university to avoid the cost and disruption of further litigation and to continue its work in making undergraduate education more affordable for more families.” 

Though the settlement agreement contains no admission of guilt, Yale’s mere involvement with such a group and the experiences of students I spoke to raise questions about such a commitment to financial equity among all of its students.

“There are other students here who never have to worry about [costs], because if something like this were to happen to them, their parents could just step in and help them out,” Oliveira said, reflecting on his struggle to stay afloat. “I think the bigger thing is, why is Yale, with the amount of wealth it has amassed, not investing in its students?”

Megan Vaz is a junior in Pierson College.

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