Revealing financial aid secrets

Though there are a number of mysteries Vassar students might wonder about on a daily basis—when the Terrace Apartment bridge will be rebuilt, for one—financial aid packages often remain the most mysterious of these.

When students look at their financial aid statements for the 2013-2014 school year, they might see some aid money go towards inexact expenses such as travel and books. This portion of aid does not go towards tuition, fees, or room and board, nor is it a work-study contribution. Students might be unsure, then, of what the seemingly excess aid is for.

This is what happened to Lorena Lomeli Moreno ’15 when she read her award letter last year. “I noticed that the Financial Aid Award letter that came in the mail stated that a portion of my financial aid was to go towards books and transportation; I was curious how this would work out,” she said in an e-mailed statement.

Moreno then went to the Office of Financial Aid, where she was told that these travel and book expenses were excess credit of about $800 in her student account. The office put this credit in her account after considering outside scholarships she received, according to Moreno.

This excess credit is not an accident. Rather, it is part of the Office of Financial Aid’s meticulous crafting of students’ financial aid packages.

The first step in determining aid packages is figuring out the cost of attendance at Vassar, or “student budget,” in the following year. This does not only include so-called billed expenses—tuition, fees, room, and board—but also non-billed expenses, explained Director of Financial Aid Jessica Bernier.

These non-billed expenses are estimated costs of necessities such as books, personal expenses like toiletries, and travel costs.

The office then determines each student’s individual family contribution, consisting of parent and student contributions. The financial aid award is the cost of attendance, including both billed and non-billed expenses save the family contribution. According the Bernier, the office expects aid money and parent contribution to cover the billed expenses while student contribution—mostly in the form of work-study, to cover non-billed expenses.

This is not always the case, however. “Depending on the financial aid package, some students may receive financial aid in excess of their billed expenses. In these cases, the students will have a credit balance on their student account which can be refunded to the student in order for them to use these credits to help cover their non-billed expenses,” Bernier said.

Moreno, for example, used the credit towards such non-tuition expenses: “As such I bought all my textbooks, school supplies, and Vassar merchandise that I needed.” Moreno utilized the bookstore in making these purchases. Although the bookstore no longer accepts credit from student accounts, the credit could be refunded as Bernier explained.

Non-billed expenses are also considered for students living in the Town Houses, Terrace Apartments, and South Commons. Their student budgets include a food allowance since they are no longer on Vassar’s meal plan. The Office of Financial Aid expects a portion of the family contribution to go towards this food allowance; therefore, a smaller portion of the contribution would go towards billed expenses. If financial aid award exceeds billed charges, excess credit could be refunded to pay for non-billed expenses—if students are living in senior housing, food is now a non-billed expense.

Students may access their accounts through Nelnet Quikpay, accessed via Ask Banner on the Vassar website. Excess credit may be in the form of a negative balance. According to the Office of Student and Employee Accounts, should this happen the student should set up a direct deposit account in order to obtain the “excess” funds.

The Office of Financial Aid has compiled an informational booklet, “Understanding Your Financial Aid Package – 2013/2014,” which they have sent to all the recently admitted students in the class of 2017. It details the process in which the office determines financial aid packages, including an explanation on non-billed expenses. While it does not touch upon the issue of extra credit, the booklet may provide clarification in the form of Vassar’s financial aid policy: “Vassar meets 100% of the demonstrated financial need for students and their families every year.” Because the Office of Financial Aid constructs the cost of attendance so that it includes non-billed expenses, if a student demonstrates that it needs aid for the full cost of attendance, Vassar will provide it. It does not matter that the cost is more than that of tuition, fees, room, and board.

Vassar’s Financial Aid Award may be difficult to decipher, but it ultimately serves to give students as much aid as possible, regardless if such aid goes towards billed or non-billed expenses.

This is all done to help Vassar students, the majority of which are on financial aid.

Bernier concurred, saying, “By including the non-billed expenses into the cost of attendance, then we are stating that the family contribution needs to be used to pay for the students educational costs. Our goal is that they would not have to pay the family contribution plus books, personal expenses and travel.”

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