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TC students call for transparency in financial aid policies

It was not until a week after last semester started that Alan Llobet, TC ’13, realized the $15,432 check that Teachers College had cut him the last two semesters did not carry over to his second year as a master’s student.

“I really chose to come here because of job opportunities and that I knew that I was coming in with half of my tuition paid,” he said. But the money TC gave him to subsidize the first year of his education, which Llobet understood to be a recurring scholarship, wasn’t offered as he began his third term.

“From one semester to the next, it was a surprise of $15,000. That’s something you don’t plan for, and when it falls on your lap, it is extremely shocking,” he said, noting that he had full scholarship offers to other schools. “This would have no longer been my first choice, and I would have considered other options.”

Llobet and other master’s students said that they were under the impression that these funds were scholarships, but administrators insist that their policy is crystal clear.

Senior lecturer Sarah Brazaitis, director of the M.A. program, said that the program is very explicit about the fact that it does not grant scholarships.

“Our program doesn’t administer scholarships to master’s students, though I wish that we had more money so that we could,” she said. “It’s on our website that we don’t. I say it at every open house, every Admitted Students Weekend, and every student advising session when students ask me. I am very up-front about it.”

Llobet has had a different experience. The financial aid office did not state non-renewal as a serious possibility as he was applying, he said. He knew that he would need to reapply for funding, but he was under the impression that the scholarship was merit-based. He thought that if he kept his grades up, his scholarship would be renewed.

James Gardner, associate vice president for external affairs at TC, stressed that information about the scholarship is made clear on the website and on the statements on students’ bills.

“There is complete clarity in the way that the provision and availability of financial aid is articulated,” he said. “Even in an acceptance letter, the important distinctions are always drawn and made so there isn’t any expectation raised without a basis or foundation.”

Jake Tuber, TC ’13, is a second-year master’s student within the same program who underwent the same ordeal. He signed the petition as well, but did not get in touch with financial aid, as others urged him that the efforts would be anything but fruitful.

“Legally, yes, we knew that we had to reapply, but it seemed like there would have had to be some reasonable issues around one’s merit to deter them from renewing the scholarship. I don’t know of anyone who has had their scholarship renewed,” he said. “I think that the idea of having it be renewed is technically an open possibility, but the word on the street, so to speak, among students here is that nobody really does get it renewed.”

Samar Aijaz, TC ’14, a first-year master’s student in the same program, was concerned when she first saw Llobet’s initiative and worries now that her financial aid, which covers half of her tuition for one year, will not be renewed for the following year.

“I find it very concerning that if you are in a two-year program and you come in as a first-year student, you can be offered a high financial aid package that doesn’t carry over to your second year,” she said. “You start wondering why, if you have a 4.0 GPA.”

Brazaitis emphasized the fact that she informs students that there are no scholarships or fellowships for master’s students. She noted that there is open faculty advisement and that students have access to faculty resources to ask questions and express their concerns.

“I think that one of the issues that has gotten confused is the word ‘renewed,’ and I know that when the Office of Enrollment Services offers our best and brightest students a scholarship, I’m excited for them, and the letter says that this is your scholarship for this year, and that it is not renewable,” she said.

Andrea Lira, a second-year master’s student in TC’s communication, computing, and technology in education program, signed Llobet’s petition, not because she is undergoing the same situation, but because she sees how doctoral students rather than master’s students within her program do not get funding. Though she has a scholarship from her country, Chile, to attend TC, she said that she has not found scholarship information to be readily available.

“I’m applying for a doctoral program, but I have as yet received no information concerning scholarship offers,” she said. “I’m not sure whether I will get that information if I am accepted, but all I know is that the financial office says that you can apply for a scholarship on the website. But they don’t really explain what that means.”

Llobet expressed concern for incoming students, as he wishes that they not go through the same thing he did.

“There’s got to be 30 kids right now in my spot who are going to have this shock during the summer as they get ready for their second year,” he said. “I think that it’d be really cool to give those guys a heads-up, because I don’t think they know what’s coming. If I could talk to incoming students who are thinking of applying here, I’d make sure to bring it up if the financial aid office doesn’t do anything about it.”

josephine.mcgowan@columbiaspectator.com | @ColumbiaSpec

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Anonymous posted on

This article raises important questions but only scratches the surface of the issues at hand. First of all, the article does not specifically name the program at TC of concern here; there are many masters programs, and this article makes it sound like this is only happening in one of them. It is not.

Second, and as usual, TC administrators are less than up front about the truth of what is going on here. And, because the Spectator reporting on this is poor, the depth of the issues is not explored. So, as background, it is common, particularly at the undergraduate level, for new students to be promised large merit-based financial aid packages that decrease in size each year. This is NOT an accident but rather a deliberate policy, since administrators know that once you are in and enrolled in college, you are less likely to leave it even if they decrease your funding, because you are committed and have started your work.

What's happening in this case, then, is that certain administrators at TC are using this same strategy in some of the College's M.A. programs, offering select scholarship funds to certain students in their first year as an incentive to increase program enrollments, and then pulling those scholarships in the second year knowing full well that the enrolled students are unlikely to drop out of the programs.

It is quite sly, and does in fact pry on the financial needs of students to get them in the door, but it is not unique to one program at TC nor is it unique to TC at all. This kind of thing happens in higher ed institutions both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

The problem here is that a) students don't know it, b) administrators lie about it and c) faculty are often not making these decisions even though they have to live with the consequences. The director here is right when she says that the program doesn't offer scholarships. These funds are coming from TC administrators who are DESPERATE to increase program enrollments, but who leave faculty to clean up the mess, with some bad press to boot.

If someone wants to get to the bottom of this practice, they ought to be interviewing folks well beyond the program faculty level. They aren't the problem.

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