Tufts Student Action hosts a teach-in about its #HaltTheHike demands in Eaton Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016. (Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily)

Financial Aid Student Advisory Board set to convene, continue dialogue on transparency

The Financial Aid Student Advisory Board (FASAB) met yesterday for the first time this academic year to provide feedback and input to the financial aid office on its communication and outreach efforts. The board was reinstated in January 2017; it had existed in the past and disbanded over five years ago, according to Director of Financial Aid Patricia Reilly.

According to Reilly, the decision to reinstate the board was partially attributed to a student push for transparency in the financial aid office from Tufts Student Action’#HaltTheHike campaign in November 2016, along with discussions with Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senators.

“We had two groups both talking about transparency in services so it seemed like a good time to beef that up,” Reilly said. “We decided [to] talk to the students to find out … what isn’t working and could be better.”

Assistant Director of Financial Aid Wenimo Poweigha oversees the FASAB, which is composed of students who have volunteered to serve on the board following a public call for participants. He explained that the board meets monthly, in addition to providing feedback as requested on specific communication efforts by the financial aid office.

Poweigha noted the positive impacts of last semester’s board, such as improvements to the financial aid website’s informational resources, the ability to schedule meetings online, communication efforts with incoming first-years on issues related to financial aid and input on development of new campus programming. An orientation session focused on financial aid was also held for the first time this fall.

The office plans to continue to build resources for students based on this feedback by building additional frequently asked questions pages, the first of which was created based on feedback from the board, specifically for topics such as study-abroad programs and off-campus housing, Poweigha said.

Reilly explained that feedback from the board allowed the office to better organize information in a way that corresponded with student perspectives.

“A lot of what this is is information that was out there but was just not easy to find and so a lot of this is not creating new information, but pulling it together and organizing it in ways that makes more sense, and that’s where having student input is really valuable because they’re the ones looking at it,” she said.

While the office does not consult with the board about all projects, the board’s input continues to have indirect influence on other areas concerning financial aid, Reilly said. She explained that the FASAB’s input has also increased collaboration with the Office for Student Success and Advising, the First-Generation Student Council and TCU Senate to contribute to a more holistic conversation on financial aid issues at Tufts.

Poweigha said that the group’s influence has extended to the production of new informational packets to be mailed out to accepted students in the spring regarding financial aid, which have traditionally been text-heavy and impersonal.

“It informed the way that we’re writing this update, to … get into the mind of ‘what is a student coming in looking for, what do they need, what’s the most important information’ and organizing it that way,” he said.

Parker Breza, a junior who served on the board in the spring, agreed that the changes spurred by the board’s discussions are important, but feels that they are insufficient. Breza said he will not continue to serve on this board because he wants to devote his time to causes outside of the scope of the board.

“The change is happening on too long of a timeline and it’s happening on too small of a scale,” he said. “From my time on the board, the sense that I got was that there were a massive amount of problems that students with financial aid were facing that the financial aid office was acutely unaware of, [such as] why students found the office unapproachable and unhelpful in the first place.”

While he stressed the importance of student feedback on the office’s communication efforts, he expressed a desire for the university to prioritize other issues, such as changing the way that full need is calculated and defined, along with increased outreach and aid opportunities for low-income and high-need students.

Reilly noted that such issues are outside the scope of the board, because they mostly relate to changes within the breakdown of the university budget.

“The role of FASAB is to work with the aid office to help us improve the student experience with the aid office … The FASAB is solely a financial aid office initiative and was not designed to be a vehicle to deal with [these] larger issues.” Reilly told the Daily in an email. “The larger issues are primarily University budget issues and are not typically issues dealt with within our office.”

Sophomore Olivia Kahn-Boesel, who served on the board last spring and plans to continue serving on the board this academic year, acknowledged both the board and office’s limitations in influencing university budgeting and policy.

“We don’t have much power to change financial policies, but making resources more accessible to students and clearer to find on the website is definitely a positive change,” Kahn-Boesel told the Daily in an electronic message.

She noted that further productive change requires dialogue with those able to influence larger issues related to financial aid distribution.

“I would love to meet with the person actually responsible for these policies and discuss how they disadvantage students with financial aid,” she said.

Breza was also displeased with the self-selection setup for the group because it did not bring in enough perspectives into the room.

“I think the financial aid office needs to prioritize reaching out to students on financial aid who are students of color, and students who are on financial aid who are first-gen students, because I think that in addition to a variety of other groups, those specific profiles of students are uniquely impacted by … financial aid at Tufts,”  he said. “Noticing that and prioritizing that specific outreach is really important and wasn’t a central focus of this board.”

Junior Spencer Perry, who served on the board last spring and plans to continue serving on the board this year, agreed that the university could increase their outreach efforts to bring in new voices.

“I think it would be great if we could represent more voices by crowd sourcing opinions from those outside the board as well,” he told the Daily in an electronic message. “This points to a larger issue at hand, but I think Tufts could do a better job of getting these types of voices on campus in the first place.”

According to Reilly, all students were sent an email inviting them to participate earlier this month in an effort to maximize the potential pool for student input.

“One of the things we talked about is how do we choose who’s going to be on the board, and we had some thought about inviting students … and made a conscious decision not to,” Reilly said. “We wanted to let anybody who felt that they had something to say be able to be on the board.”

Breza feels that the board is unproductive in addressing these larger issues, necessitating the continuation of discussing these issues through the #HaltTheHike campaign, for which he is a central organizer.

“I don’t think this drastically changes the way that [students organizing the campaign] see ourselves in relation to the university,” he said. “I’d encourage students that have the energy and desire to provide this feedback in this way to pursue that, but I don’t think that changes the necessity of the whole #HaltTheHike campaign to continue.”

While Kahn-Boesel feels that there is much more to be done to improve the state of financial aid at Tufts, she noted that the existence of FASAB is an important first step.

Perry agreed that the FASAB will play an important role at Tufts if the financial aid office remains committed to taking student perspectives into account.

“Ideally this board is a constant source for the university to hear student voices on the topic,” he said, “and its reach and impact will only continue to grow so long as the university continues to honestly listen.”

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