This article is part of a Quest series reporting on financial aid at Minerva.
Disclaimer: All contributing writers signed the petition and/or participated in the Day of Action. We strive to represent all sides here but want to acknowledge our personal bias in favor of the Day of Action demands.
ASM moderated a financial aid town hall on Friday, April 17, following the Day of Action that Monday which called for changes to some of Minerva’s financial aid practices. The senior team and relevant staff were present to answer student questions.
The student organizers of the Day of Action created and shared a set of six “demands” – most dealing with transparency and prompt communication and one requesting the hiring of an additional financial aid staff member. The full set of demands can be viewed with a minerva.kgi.edu email. A town hall was promptly scheduled to address student questions and demands live, and the senior team also released an initial written response.
Before the meeting, ASM compiled a list of questions submitted by students which can be viewed with a minerva.kgi.edu email. The goal of the meeting was to further address the Day of Action demands and student questions; it was explicitly stated that it would not be a forum for individual concerns. The meeting was open to all currently enrolled students.
Around 217 students and staff attended the Zoom call, according to ASM members. Ben Nelson and Nikolaus Pelka, Minerva’s Chief Financial Officer as of November 2019, answered the bulk of the 11 questions presented. The session lasted for just over one and a half hours. Questions addressed Manifest costs and refunds, unannounced increases in loans, transparency and communication, and the implications of COVID-19 on refunds and costs.
Students upvoted follow-up questions during the event, with ASM members both keeping track of time and presenting questions. After the town hall, the senior team sent out a written response to some of the unanswered questions (can be viewed with a minerva.kgi.edu email).
The full recording of the town hall can be viewed here with the password previously shared with enrolled students. Timestamps in parentheses indicate the approximate times when a topic was discussed.
There were several questions about Manifest costs including M’20 loan increases and refunds due to the event going remote (12:45), overall Manifest costs (53:10), and Manifest work-study (1:14:15).
Regarding refunds, Nelson and Pelka explained that the family contribution is the “anchor” for a student’s financial aid package and that the scholarship is flexible. So, refunds would be applied to a student’s scholarship first and they would not receive a refund for Manifest unless the refund amount exceeds the scholarship amount.
When asked about why loans were included in that area of ‘no refunds,’ Pelka and Nelson claimed loans were not used to cover Manifest costs. For their first three years, M’20 had $2,950 in loans per year but in the 2019-2020 school year, their loans were increased to $4,950, the same amount as the other classes. M’20 had assumed that the loan increase was due to the increased cost of the fourth year because of Manifest, but Nelson and Pelka said that it was unrelated. They did not address why this explanation of the M’20 loan increase was not formally communicated to the class at any point before the town hall.
They also clarified that much of the costs for Manifest are unrelated to in-person programming and therefore could not be refunded. This includes salaries for faculty and staff and the cost of printing diplomas to be sent to M’20s after graduation.
Nelson expressed interest in collaborating with students to come up with ideas to lower costs, including graduation costs.
Unannounced increase in loans
However, financial aid packages for M’21’s fourth year (2020-2021 school year) included a $7,950 loan, an increase from the $4,950 amount for the previous three years. For a student who accepts all loans as part of their financial package, their total debt would rise to $22,000, breaking the $20,000 loan cap promise.
During the town hall, Nelson explained that this increase occurred because Minerva cannot afford to continue meeting this loan cap while also providing adequate aid to future students (28:00). He did not address why this change was not formally communicated to students.
The Tuition & Aid page on the Minerva website was updated the day before the town hall to reflect a $22,000 loan cap. Nelson explained that the Minerva website may be out of date because the Minerva staff do not continually read the entire website.
Nelson and Pelka did not directly address a follow-up question on the ethicality of breaking the commitment to a $20,000 loan ceiling in the town hall or in a document released after the meeting that answered additional student questions (accessible with a minerva.kgi.edu email). They did note that students don’t have to take out loans, so the loan ceiling is technically optional.
When asked if more staff would be added to the financial aid team to both ease strain on the team and increase efficacy (57:45), Nelson and Pelka brought up concerns about administrative costs, which is the reason Minerva runs on a thin team.
In the response to the student demands document, the senior team explained “every employee who would cost $100,000 (salary, benefits, travel, expenses, etc) would cost every undergraduate another $150 per year.”
Minerva currently has one staff member, Melissa Morgenstern, who works on financial aid full-time. Pelka, Minerva’s Chief Financial Officer, and work-study students also assist with financial aid.
In regards to transparency and communication, Nelson claimed that most relevant information can be found on the Hub or Minerva’s website and that this should be the first place that students look when they have questions about financial aid (1:00:05). He added that this would lower the work-load for financial aid staff.
In response to a question about how students can more accurately convey their financial need in the aid application and appeal, Nelson explained that Minerva does not release how they calculate the family contribution so that students cannot “game the system” (1:12:10). This is the same rationale for why Minerva does not release their admissions formula. Nelson said that there have been cases of students being dishonest or misleading in their financial aid applications that have prompted investigations and reductions of aid.
The final question Nelson addressed was about communication (1:26:00). Students felt that the staff should communicate topics of finances and financial aid with more concern for student hardships and honest explanation of Minerva’s constraints . In response, Nelson said that students also needed to work on their tone when communicating to staff and the senior team. He claimed that the Day of Action was ineffective, despite the partial success of initiating a town hall, and that students should not have phrased their message to the senior team as “demands.”
When an ASM moderator and another student clarified that the question was about staff communication, not student communication, Nelson responded that he was using this as a teaching opportunity to point out where students can improve their use of certain HCs.
In the last ten minutes of the town hall, James Lyda, Minerva’s Dean of Students at the time, and Pelka said that Minerva is working on its student-facing communications to have more effective interactions and productive conversations.
Reactions and reflections
There was widespread frustration during and immediately after the town hall, especially in regards to the responses to questions about the loan cap increase and staff communication. Several students asked to hear more responses from Morgenstern and Pelka instead of Nelson during the town hall, as they are the two staff members who work most closely on financial aid.
Nelson told the Quest: “Town halls are an imperfect medium but I think it was broadly effective. … One area which continues to trouble me is that some of the questions were asked from what felt like an assumption of us having bad intent. I thought those were counterproductive to the goals of the meeting. … I do wish we can come up with a format to make them [town halls] a bit more collaborative and effective–an approach of understanding constraints and goals ahead of time and a process by which systematic proposals would be offered as options rather than critiquing one aspect or another in isolation.”
Nebraska Grayson, an M’21 student and one of the Day of Action organizers, told the Quest: “I thought that the town hall was productive in the sense that it allowed students to get direct answers from administration rather than through the ASM. … Still, I was a bit disappointed with the answers. … I didn’t feel like the response from the administration that they will sometimes break promises was sufficient. They need to be honest and provide a foundation of support that is dependable.”