This article is part of a Quest series reporting on financial aid at Minerva. Other articles in the series are forth-coming and will provide more qualitative analysis of the patterns discussed here. The Quest values the perspectives of all Minerva stakeholders and we are actively working with Minerva administrators to add their voices to those of the students who shared their experiences with us through future articles and interviews.
Debates and confusion over financial aid are a perennial aspect of Minerva student life. Student conversations often focus on individual stories that strike a chord with the broader community. It can be difficult, however, to clearly understand how financial aid looks for the student body as a whole.
With that in mind, the Quest distributed a survey about financial aid to Minerva students. The 70 responses we received, though far from comprehensive, provide some insight into financial aid at a broad scale. Here’s what we learned.
The 70 respondents do not fully represent Minerva’s diverse student body and may specifically over-represent those who have strong feelings either for or against the financial aid system. From our survey we found that a majority of respondents and their families have estimated annual incomes that would make it impossible or extremely difficult for them to pay the full cost of attendance. In each academic year, the largest group of respondents received full or nearly-full aid — around $30,000. For individual respondents, the average change in financial aid between the first and last year they applied was about $500, though the cost of tuition also increased by $1,000 between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 academic years.
Respondents were split on how fair they thought their aid was. Many expressed gratitude for Minerva’s help, though others felt that their financial aid did not consistently reflect their family’s need or called for more transparency and communication to help students budget proactively. A majority of respondents who applied for financial aid had asked for changes to their package at some point, and while many were frustrated or waiting to hear back about these appeals some shared that Minerva had responded positively to their requests.
Overall, analyzing the survey results affirmed that while Minerva’s financial aid system works for many, others have consistently struggled in ways they did not expect. We encourage you to read the entire article to grasp the nuances and limitations of this analysis and stay tuned for forthcoming reporting on the subject.
First, Some Disclaimers
The 70 respondents make up just over 10 percent of the estimated 600 total students in Minerva. Moreover, it is likely that the students who have strong feelings for or against the financial aid system were motivated to complete our survey. Just keep in mind that while the conclusions we draw from this survey are important, exercise caution when applying them to the entire Minerva student body.
Survey respondents as a fraction of the approximately 600 total Minerva students.
The survey results were distorted in terms of which cohorts and nationalities were represented. A majority of our respondents (43 of 70) were underclassmen, with M’22 students specifically making up 26 of the 70 respondents. M’21 students had the least respondents (12) though this cohort of students is the largest. There was only one respondent from M’19, who we appreciate greatly but will omit from the remainder of this analysis.
The overrepresentation of younger students is significant because it limits analysis of how financial aid evolves through all four years of the Minerva experience, especially with the impact of Manifest costs. But the skew toward younger classes also means that a majority of data came from students who experienced the most recent iterations of the Minerva financial aid model, providing a better glimpse into how the system functions now.
Survey respondents by cohort.
In terms of nationality, only US citizens were represented at roughly the same proportion in our survey as they are in Minerva overall (~20 percent). The next largest group of students opted to not disclose their nationality, and most other nationalities, with the possible exception of Brazil and Ukraine, were underrepresented.
Reported nationality of survey respondents. “NA” means that the respondent declined to list their nationality. Some respondents listed multiple nationalities and were counted separately in each category.
Finally, all financial aid information analyzed in this article was reported by student respondents and may contain inaccuracies, innocent or otherwise. While 10 respondents provided us with screenshots verifying the financial aid rewards they reported, the majority of data relies on honest responses.
In the interest of transparency, you can access the Python code used to produce most of the statistics in this analysis here. You can access the original survey here. In the interest of protecting student privacy, however, the survey results themselves are strictly confidential.
Financial Backgrounds of Minerva Students
Many respondents provided details of their family’s financial status. Their answers provide a glimpse into the incredible diversity of Minerva’s student body and the insane complexity of fairly distributing a limited amount of financial aid resources to all who apply.
Of the 70 respondents, 53 provided a range or approximate value of their family’s annual income in USD. The values ranged from $0 (families struggling with unemployment and/or only surviving with government support) to incomes that exceeded $300,000 in the case of a couple well-off, U.S.-based families.
Approximate annual family income as reported by 53 survey respondents.
The majority of students who provided income information made less than $50,000 a year. Without financial aid, therefore, the approximately $30,000 cost of attending Minerva would require at least 60 percent of their annual income. Many of these families made less than $10,000 a year, which would make it incredibly difficult for them to afford Minerva without aid.
Reported Financial Aid Awards by Academic Year
Of the 70 survey respondents, only six reported that they had never applied for financial aid. The remaining 64 had applied in at least one year, though not all of them received aid. These results are close to the statistic that 80 percent of students are on some form of financial aid, which the Minerva Senior Team reported in their response to the financial aid Day of Action.
Among our survey respondents, the average financial aid amount received by students who applied was about $20,000 each year. The largest group of students received aid that covered all or almost all of the estimated $31,950 cost to attend Minerva in the first three years (in the fourth year, the cost increases to $35,900 due to Manifest). Note that the following analysis focuses on a academic years, not calendar years.
Reported first-year aid financial aid rewards from the 62 respondents who applied.
All 70 survey respondents could have applied for first-year aid and 62 reported that they did. The average first-year aid reward amongst the respondents was $18,720, the lowest average of all four years. This is partly due to the fact that some students who applied in the first year received no aid. A majority of this group (six out of 10) then did not re-apply in later years, and as a result the first-year average is weighed down by more $0 amounts than the other years.
Reported second year aid financial aid rewards from the 53 respondents who applied.
All survey respondents also could have applied for second year aid, and 53 of them did. The average aid awarded for this year was $21,135. Compared to first year, fewer students received nothing from Minerva, and in both years many students received full or nearly-full aid, resulting in a higher average.
Reported third year aid financial aid rewards from the 41 respondents who applied.
Aid for third and fourth year respondents followed a similar trend to the previous years. The average reported aid rewards were $20,368 and $19,921, respectively. Only 53 respondents could have applied for third year aid (M’23 students are too young) and 41 reported that they did. Only M’21 and M’20 students could have applied for fourth year aid, and of the 27 respondents in these cohorts, 17 reported applying.
Reported fourth year aid financial aid rewards from the 17 respondents who applied.
As explained above, fourth-year students have to pay higher costs due to Manifest. The aid awards shown in the graph above may seem low compared to the increased costs. It’s important to note, however, that the survey respondents for M’20 and M’21 received less financial aid on average than the M’22 and M’23 respondents in early years. In their second-year, for example, M’20 and M’21 students received an average of $17,371 and $16,407, respectively, compared to M’22 and M’23 students who respectively received an average financial aid package of $23,132 and $22,307. Furthermore, the smaller number of respondents from M’20 and M’21 means that an analysis of these cohorts is necessarily more uncertain since more information is missing for them.
Reported Change in Financial Aid over Time
In addition to the general trends discussed above, we analyzed how aid changed from year to year for each eligible respondent. Of the 64 respondents who applied for financial aid, 54 did so in more than one year.
Average change in financial aid for the 54 respondents who applied in more than one year.
The average change in reported financial aid for one person was positive — approximately $500 per year. The trend reflects the Minerva Senior Team’s report that “93% of scholarships provided to the same students have either stayed the same or increased and 78% of family contributions have either decreased or stayed the same.”
During the same time, however, tuition and fees also increased — raising the total cost of attendance by $1,000 between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 academic years — so some students were paying the same or more even as their aid went up. According to the Minerva Senior Team, about 67 percent of family contributions that increased did so due to the tuition and fee increases. They also stated that seven percent of scholarships decreased and eight percent of family contributions increased for “particular reasons” beyond the rising costs.
The reasons for these financial aid changes were not always clear to students. Of the 54 applicable respondents, 31 described the reasons Minerva provided for changes in their financial aid. About half of these respondents mentioned that they were confused about the changes to their aid or had received no clarifying information from Minerva. The rest largely understood the changes as a consequence of factors like a change in their family’s financial situation, going off-rotation, mistakes on the financial aid application, or the tuition increase.
Perceptions of Financial Aid Fairness
In addition to reporting the financial aid they received, the survey also asked respondents to assess how fair they thought this aid was. Of the 64 respondents who applied for financial aid, 20 thought what they received was fair every year. The same number of students told us they believe they received less aid than their family needs. One person thought they received more aid than their family needs, though they did not explain why. The remainder (23) responded that their assessment of fairness was more complicated or varied from year to year.
Perceptions of how fair financial aid awards are as reported by the 64 respondents who applied for aid.
It should be noted that the design of this survey question was slightly flawed, which resulted in a misunderstanding that excluded two unsuccessful financial aid applicants from these results.
Most respondents (48 of 70) explained how they assessed the fairness of their financial aid. Several respondents who thought their aid was unfair at least in some years mentioned mandatory but not directly covered costs like GeoBlue health insurance, flights, visa fees, and the scholarship tax that they struggled to afford. One respondent wrote, “While my financial aid has increased, it is still extremely difficult for me to pay the term bill AND health insurance, which is twice the amount of my term bill and shows how flawed the system is.” Some respondents similarly mentioned frustrations with Manifest fees that they felt their aid packages could not cover.
Others expressed frustration that loans were counted as financial aid when they left students with debt after graduation. One respondent felt “it is unreasonable to graduate with such high amounts of student loans as they expect us to.” This burden is especially heavy for those who come from countries where taking out loans is less common and/or making payments in USD with a local job would be next to impossible. Currency devaluation and different expectations for how much parents should save for their child’s education were also mentioned as challenges that varied depending on a student’s home country.
On the other hand, multiple respondents who believed that their aid was fair used this space to express appreciation for what Minerva gave them. One of these respondents wrote, “Minerva has been super helpful in understanding that and providing just enough financial aid.” This group also included students who said that they were thankful for their aid even though their families still struggled to pay for their education. Another respondent said, “Minerva gave me the best they could. I really can’t imagine getting more money. Although even the $1,000 I had to pay would sometimes be a scary sum.”
Perceptions of how fair aid was for those who asked Minerva to change their financial aid package.
Of the 64 people who applied for financial aid, 38 said that they had asked Minerva to change their financial aid package at least once. Of those who appealed their aid awards, 28 had believed that their aid was unfair in at least one year. Most of the remaining 10 respondents said that they thought their aid was fair; those who explained their responses wrote that Minerva had responded positively to their requests and changed their aid to better meet their family’s needs. About 10 respondents noted that they were still waiting to hear back about their appeal of this year’s financial aid package or did not receive a response to their request.
The survey concluded with an open-ended question that invited respondents to comment on their financial aid experience however they wished. Of the 70 respondents, 28 wrote something in this section.
Many of the responses echoed the demands of the financial aid Day of Action that occurred at the end of the semester, around the same time we distributed our survey. These included calls for more transparency in the financial aid process and disclosure of all mandatory costs far in advance of when they were due so that students can budget appropriately. One respondent said, “I just think that financial aid at Minerva could be more transparent.”
Multiple respondents expressed frustration with the lengths they and their families have to go to in order to pay Minerva bills and wished either for more aid or more information to ease the burden. One respondent said they are “genuinely considering taking a leave of absence, applying to study remotely (somehow) or taking multiple summer jobs to try to afford the total cost of tuition, student services, flights, visas, accommodation, etc., purely because my family would be unable to afford everything without these actions, and Minerva assumes we can pay more than we can without considering how much my parents need to survive, pay off their mortgage, their own insurance expenses, etc.”
Other complaints included M’20 students who did not receive a full refund of Manifest costs despite the event going remote due to coronavirus. Some students again expressed frustration with Minerva including loans within their definition of financial aid, with one respondent writing they “feel sad that loans and their repayments are all the same for all the students regardless of future job prospects, country of future work/living, and family abilities.”
But multiple students also wrote that they were satisfied with their financial aid packages and grateful for Minerva’s support. One respondent shared, “I was always very grateful for my financial aid and would not be able to make it if it was worse than this. I know that people often complain about their aid, but I want to acknowledge that as a student in need I always received support.”
Finally, several students also wrote that they were critical of the collective anger over financial aid and felt their peers needed to adopt a more nuanced perspective of Minerva’s decisions and constraints. Two respondents explicitly expressed support for Minerva investigating the financial situation of some students, especially since they believe that some students exaggerate their family’s need in the aid application. One student asserted that Minerva’s financial aid is much better than other U.S. universities and said, “It’s easy to hold on to the few outrageous, or loud, cases, and reject the system, but I believe it works well for the majority of students, within what Minerva can realistically offer. Kinks in the system have always been worked out, and they will continue to be.”
The analysis above begins to shed light on what those kinks are and how they may, eventually, be worked out. The Quest will continue to report on Minerva’s financial aid system in a series of upcoming articles.