This piece is part of our ongoing reporting on financial aid. You can also read a series of financial aid-focused student profiles, an analysis of a student survey about financial aid, and our reports on the financial aid Day of Action and subsequent town hall.

Increased transparency and communication are constant themes of discussion regarding most aspects of Minerva, and financial aid is no exception. Five out of the six student demands (viewable with a minerva.kgi.edu email) for the financial aid Day of Action were related to increased transparency and more regular and complete communication of financial aid policies and program costs.

Throughout the Quest’s interviews for our reporting on financial aid, common themes were confusion about how Minerva calculates family contribution and frustration with the financial aid application process. There doesn’t seem to be one location with all relevant information on program costs and financial aid. Instead, it is split between the Prepare page, the student handbook, other areas of the Hub, and ad hoc emails sent directly to students and posted on the Community Portal.

When asked about this, Nikolaus Pelka, Minerva’s Chief Financial Officer, acknowledged that “currently, relevant information about financial aid is somewhat scattered and not as helpful as it ought to be. We plan to revamp this and create a central location for information during this school year.”

While Minerva’s “sticker price” is $26,950 per year plus $3,950 for Manifest in the fourth year, the net cost of attending varies significantly between students based on individual scholarships, work-study hours logged, technology expenses, flights to and from rotation cities, visa fees, health insurance, and everyday expenses like groceries, social events, and traveling during the semester. Because of these “hidden” expenses that are not explicitly covered by Minerva’s financial aid system, it can be difficult to accurately predict the actual cost of attending over all four years.

An anonymous M’21 student told the Quest he worked and saved as he planned in the beginning, but soon realized he had underestimated the amount he needed to pay. “We had to pay for health insurance and then tax on top of [daily living expenses],” he told the Quest. “A lot of things were not included when Minerva gave me what they called ‘estimated living expenses.’”

Regular communications from Minerva (or lack thereof)

The Minerva website is likely the first place a prospective student will find information about Minerva’s costs and financial aid. These pages underscore that Minerva does everything it can to keep costs low for all students. Minerva’s tuition is $13,950 per year, which is about a quarter of what top-tier US universities charge. It’s 40% of the average tuition for private US colleges and half of the average out-of-state tuition for public US colleges.

A 2017 OECD report showed that tuition for undergraduates in the US was higher than most other OECD countries, even for international students. According to the report, Minerva’s $13,950 tuition also falls in the high range, less than only the average tuition for international students attending university in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, and Canada.  Tuition costs around the world are difficult to research because there is no central body that collects this information.

Between 2017 and 2020, Minerva’s tuition has gone up from $12,500 to $13,950, which corresponds to the 3.5% per year inflation rate in San Francisco over these three years. This increase is approximately the same as average relative tuition increases for private and public (in-state and out-of-state) universities in the US between 2017 and 2020.

There is no central portal with all the relevant information about tuition, fees, and financial aid. Current and previous term bills can be found from the Prepare page by clicking on “All Invoices” under “Helpful Links.” The Hub’s Student Finances and Financial Aid section has some additional information; however, much of the information there is out of date and doesn’t seem to be updated regularly.  For example, the Student Accounts page has estimated annual costs for the 2017-18 school year. The Work-Study FAQ page references the 10 hour per week maximum average hours worked, even though there is now a 7.5 hour per week maximum and suggests contacting a staff member who no longer works at Minerva. During the financial aid town hall, Ben Nelson said that Minerva doesn’t go through their whole website regularly, so out of date information may appear for some time before being found and corrected.

Screenshot 10/4/2020 from the Hub
Screenshot 10/4/2020 from the Hub
Screenshot 9/3/2020 from the Hub External Scholarship “Current Opportunities” page.  The most recent application due dates are December 2018 (excluding recurring scholarships).

Updates to financial aid policies are usually sent by email or through the Community Portal as they come up. However, given the sometimes conflicting information or otherwise confusing nature of financial aid, students may resort to emailing the financial aid office with individual questions. Giovanna Chaves (M’20), however, said she was sometimes reluctant to send direct emails because she didn’t want to overwhelm the team, preferring to ask friends when confused.

Melissa Morgenstern, Minerva’s Student Accounts Manager, is the only full-time employee whose sole focus is financial aid.  Many students feel that this situation is inadequate and one of the student demands from the financial aid Day of Action was to hire an additional staff member “to provide more direct support for students, ensure the timely release of information and bills, and to process the applications.”

Estimating the cost of attending

Minerva promises to meet the full demonstrated financial need of all students. As such, students often assume that their family contribution and financial aid package will remain the same unless their financial situation changes. However, this anecdotally seems not to be the case.

Several students told the Quest that their financial aid package was somewhat unpredictable even when their family’s finances stayed the same. Phoebe Meixner (M’20) told the Quest, “It was impossible to predict when it would be $1,000 more or when it would be $1,000 less.” Giovanna Chaves (M’20) went even further, advising students not to rely too much on their first-year financial aid package: “Minerva will increase your loans for some reason” as they did for M’20 and M’21 in their final years. She pointed out that since Minerva is still a new institution, things will continue to change, including financial aid.

Underestimating the ultimate cost of Minerva was a theme in several financial aid profiles. An anonymous M’21 student from Europe, who believed Minerva would be more affordable but ended up accumulating significant credit card debt to make ends meet, wished Minerva’s marketing to incoming students had been more direct about the financial difficulty involved. While he didn’t know for sure if he would have still enrolled in Minerva if he’d had this information, he would have felt better knowing that he had made a more informed decision.

“There is no point in saying that Minerva has to give financial aid to everyone,” this student told the Quest. “But there is a strong point to make in saying that Minerva has to be fully honest on how much financial aid they can give and how much financial effort will be required from a student.”

“Hidden” costs

Minerva term bills usually include tuition, a student services fee, housing, and sometimes health insurance. The Minerva website estimates $5,000 per year for additional expenses, including “food, local transportation, books, and supplies.” These expenses are not paid directly to Minerva and vary based on student choices and abilities.

Other significant expenses, such as taxes (including scholarship tax), visa fees, flights, and health insurance, are not directly communicated to students but are also mandatory and relatively predictable. They are not necessarily hidden, because all students know that they must get a visa and a flight to their rotation city, but it can be easy to forget or ignore them until they need to be paid. Furthermore, these expenses are often borne disproportionately by students with passports that face greater restrictions and expenses when it comes to travel.  And even when students are fully aware of the existence of these costs, they can still be difficult to budget for because the amounts may be higher than expected. Many students noted these expenses in a survey conducted by the Quest in April.

An M’22 student from Pakistan said in the Quest’s survey that their health insurance costs the same as their term bill, meaning that they effectively have to pay double their calculated family contribution: “Health insurance and visa fees should be a part of the financial aid as these are integral and necessary components for being a student at Minerva,” they wrote. “Not including them directly discriminates against low-income students who come from countries with unprivileged passports and often have to pay a large visa fee.”

An M’23 student from Kenya wrote that paying for Minerva “is very stressful, especially when other costs like visas, flights, and insurance are included.” This student usually pays their own expenses because their family isn’t able to contribute.

“When other costs such as travel and insurance come in, it’s overwhelming.”

Anonymous M’23 student from the Quest’s financial aid survey

A different M’23 from Kenya wrote that, while they are comfortable paying their term bill after financial aid, “when other costs such as travel and insurance come in, it’s overwhelming.” These expenses are evident to students, but it is unclear whether they come into Minerva’s calculation of family contribution. An M’22 student pointed out: “At first glance, it may seem like my family should be able to contribute more,” but that’s only when ignoring these additional costs not paid directly to Minerva.

Similarly, Ibukunoluwa Aribilola (M’22) said that she doesn’t consider her work-study earnings to be enough to cover flights to and from the rotation cities. Instead, she has relied on paid summer positions to cover this additional cost.

Health insurance, visa costs, and the scholarship tax are predictable yearly or semesterly expenses, but they are not explicitly stated in cost estimates on Minerva’s website. While these costs vary from student to student and semester to semester, they can almost always be accurately predicted given a student’s citizenship, rotation city, and scholarship amount.  The “Other Expenses” noted on the Minerva website seem to refer to daily living expenses such as “food, local transportation, books, and supplies.” While health insurance is noted, there is no estimate or range for how much it may cost.  The Hub has information on the costs of scholarship tax, health insurance, and visa fees, however, information on the centralized visa fees page is incomplete and out of date.

On September 18th, Ben Nelson emailed an “Anti-Racist Action Plan” to the Minerva community. In this document, the senior team states: “We will look at how to include [on Minerva’s website] costs such as scholarship tax (for those who receive scholarship grants), visas, and any specifics around loan repayment.” They also say “the financial aid team is finalizing a document on ‘How to afford a Minerva education’ that goes into great detail about how students can finance their education and the various costs they will incur. We will be using this information during our outreach and admissions efforts this year.”

Fees for damage to housing can be an additional unexpected charge. Any damage caused to the apartments is taken out of student security deposits and then is billed to students to refill their security deposit at the end of the school year. For example, Minerva’s housing in Berlin is through the property management group Berlinovo and many students in M’20 and M’21 were charged fees for damage to their Berlinovo apartments. It is unclear whether these charges were justified, but there were extensive discussions on internal Facebook groups, with many students feeling that they were unfairly charged for damages. Some even insist that there was no damage to their apartment. These fees were over $130 for some students.

Unexpected or time-sensitive expenses like discounted flights or emergency medical costs can be difficult for students to pay if they rely on work-study paychecks for their daily expenses and don’t have savings.  According to the Hub, Minerva offers up to $100 per semester as a short-term emergency loan, however, the form to apply for this loan has dates from the 2018-19 school year so it is unclear whether this is still an option for current students.

Screenshot 9/3/2020 of the Short-Term Emergency Loan form linked on the Hub. This form has dates from the 2018-19 school year.

Loan ceiling

Before 2020, Minerva had promised that students would take on no more than $20,000 in loans for the four years. However, the financial aid packages received by many M’21 students for the 2020-2021 school year broke this “loan ceiling” for a total of $22,000 in loans for all four years. Minerva has now committed to a $22,000 loan ceiling for future classes during the financial aid town hall and on the Minerva website. The previous loan cap of $20,000 is still on the Hub.

Screenshot from the Hub 8/27/2020

M’20 loans were also increased for the 2019-2020 school year from $2,960 (page 4) to $4,950 to match the lower classes (page 4). As there was no explanation to M’20 about the increase, many students assumed this increase was to cover Manifest.

Phoebe Meixner (M’20) pointed out that Minerva treats both loans and scholarships as forms of financial aid, even though they are very different from the student perspective. Although she trusts that Minerva wasn’t trying to profit off her, she worries that Minerva may ultimately provide only loans instead of scholarship. With the broken loan ceiling commitment, this possibility seems more likely.  Since Minerva didn’t follow through on the $20,000 loan ceiling, students may not trust that they will follow through on the updated $22,000 loan ceiling. When asked about this possibility, Ben Nelson responded: “Raising the maximum loan amount is always possible in the future though no increase is planned as of now.”

In a follow-up document answering additional questions after the town hall, the senior team did not directly address this broken promise and the lack of communication around it. In response to the question, “Are you going to inform future students that the loan ceiling is optional?” Minerva wrote, “The total loan ceiling is optional in as far as a student is not obligated to take out the loan that is offered as part of the Financial Aid package.” In the context of the town hall, this question was likely asking about the possibility of Minerva again raising the loan ceiling without informing students, not about the case of a student not accepting the loans.  Additionally, many students would not be able to afford to attend Minerva without accepting the Climb loans meaning that in practice, they are rarely “optional,” as stated in the response.

When asked more directly, Ben Nelson told the Quest that if there are future changes to financial aid or tuition “I hope we’ll do better at [communicating those changes] than we did in that case where the website wasn’t updated. Unfortunately, these are not linked systems and the sprawl of Minerva information continues to expand so I am sure there will be some mistakes that will continue to happen. But broadly, we should be communicating any changes to tuition, financial aid, or related items as we issue the financial aid award information to students.”

Responsibilities for paying for education

In the Response to Student Demands document released after the financial aid Day of Action, the senior team explained who Minerva sees as responsible for paying for education. First, the institution has the responsibility to keep costs low. Second, the student’s family must pay what they can afford for tuition and other expenses. Third, the student takes responsibility for $10,000 per year of their own education with loans and work-study. Finally, philanthropists are responsible for covering the rest of the cost with scholarships through the Minerva Project.

Because of this hierarchy of responsibility, scholarships are the most flexible of the type of financial aid. They have the capacity to be increased or decreased as needed to cover the remaining costs after the family contribution, loans, and work-study have been maxed out. For this reason, Manifest refunds for M’20 were taken out of the scholarship first.

The Response to Student Demands document was the first time that Minerva had directly and explicitly explained this responsibility hierarchy to students in writing.  The Applying for Financial Assistance FAQ page on the Minerva website, states “Minerva first employs low-interest student loans and term-time employment opportunities. To cover the remaining gap in the estimated cost of attendance, we provide need-based scholarships, that try to meet families’ demonstrated need and enable all qualified students to attend.” There is still confusion around how the family contribution and scholarship amounts are determined.

How Minerva determines financial aid packages

Minerva does not release information about how they calculate a student’s family contribution from the completed financial aid application. Like their admissions criteria, this information is kept secret so that students can’t manipulate the calculation to their benefit or “game the system.” This policy exists to ensure that the financial aid process is fair and gives all students the same opportunity to affordably attend Minerva. 

The lack of transparency creates confusion when a student’s family contribution or financial aid package changes. Several students interviewed by the Quest said that their family contribution changed even when their family’s finances stayed the same. Other students said that their family contribution stayed the same or even went up even if they had less capacity to pay, for example, if a parent lost a job, a sibling started attending university, or their home currency devalued.

In Minerva’s Response to Student Demands from the financial aid Day of Action, the senior team said “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 and 2/3rds of family contributions that increased reflected the published increase in tuition and fees or less” from the 2019-20 to 2020-21 school year.  Further, they said that there were “particular reasons” for any increase in family contribution beyond the increase in tuition and fees.  These reasons vary depending on the individual students’ and families’ finances.

Minerva has said that there have been instances where students have misrepresented their finances on their financial aid applications and ended up with a lower family contribution when they could have afforded to pay more.  Nelson told the Quest that “unfortunately, it [the issue of students misrepresenting their finances] is more significant than it should be.” According to the Student Handbook, Minerva conducts random audits on most families who receive financial aid as well as investigations into student and family finances if they have reasonable suspicion or evidence that they provided incorrect or incomplete information on their financial aid application.

Discussing financial aid via individual cases

All schools that receive federal funding from the US Department of Education must comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). According to the student handbook Minerva complies with FERPA although they do not accept federal student loans or other federal funding. FERPA protects the privacy of student records, including educational records and financial aid records. Since these are protected, Minerva cannot discuss or release information about individual financial aid cases to other Minerva students or unrelated staff (such as an academic advisor).

Sometimes individual students turn to private Minerva Facebook groups to ask for advice on affording Minerva, including appealing their financial aid package. Since these cases are often very specific, it is hard for other students to fully understand the details of an individual’s financial situation. This is made even more confusing because Minerva is not transparent about how they calculate family contribution.

One specific instance of a financial aid investigation came up in an internal Minerva Facebook group, but it is difficult to confirm details or generalize from this because Minerva cannot release information about specific cases because of FERPA.

The Associated Students of Minerva (ASM) for the most part cannot bring individual cases to the Minerva administration, so students who may be struggling with their financial aid and want personalized advocacy may feel unsupported.  According to Kate Tanha, an M’21 ASM representative, “If there are individual cases that reflect an institutional matter or affect the community broadly, ASM is willing to seek solutions. Historically, if a student raises an individual issue, our first step has been to understand whether the issue affects the student community now and is likely to affect them in the future. We do not seek resolutions on behalf of a single student but will continue to advocate for any community issues.”

Additionally, since finances are often an uncomfortable topic, it can be difficult to know if something is an individual challenge or a more widespread issue. However, Tessa Owens (M’21) has been quite open about her struggles with not receiving financial aid and working through them on Facebook and, later, on the Quest. Despite applying every year, Owens didn’t receive any financial aid in her first three years at Minerva. She could not ask for help from ASM, and Minerva cannot publicly share information about a specific student’s financial aid application, so she could not take any actions beyond continuing to apply for financial aid.

Conclusion

Minerva’s relatively low tuition cost compared to top tier private US colleges may make it an attractive option for some students. Additionally, Minerva is one of very few US colleges that commit to meeting 100% of demonstrated financial need for all students, including that of non-U.S. citizens.  Around 80% of Minerva students receive some form of financial aid and 50% have financial aid packages of $25,000 per year, almost the annual cost of tuition, student services fees, and residential fees.

Financial aid can be confusing, frustrating, and stressful at any institution, and Minerva is no exception.  A lack of clear and complete communication can add to this. It is often unclear if and when financial aid policies and program costs change as these are only intermittently communicated to students through official channels like email.

The raised loan ceiling is one such example. Many students saw this as a broken promise and a particularly extreme instance of the lack of communication of important changes that reflects a more general trend in Minerva’s relationship with students when it comes to finances and other important issues. Hidden, unexpected, or forgotten expenses such as health insurance, taxes including the scholarship tax, and visa fees don’t appear in the term bill and often are significant costs. They also may vary student to student, making them difficult to predict and budget adequately.

Following discussions with the ASM in efforts to increase transparency, the Minerva administration recently released a document with changes to the student handbook from the 2019-20 school to the upcoming 2020-21 school year.  The Hub also now has a library of previous Climb loan documents that was added on the financial aid Day of Action.

Despite potentially high levels of stress, many students have had positive experiences with talking directly with the financial aid office.  However, these conversations are often delayed and staff may take longer than students expect to respond, perhaps because of how few people work on financial aid at Minerva.  

Finances can be an emotional topic.  On Minerva’s side, there is likely a lot of pressure to consistently provide high levels of financial aid to students.  Confusion about financial aid policies can greatly increase stress for students who may be struggling to pay for their education and daily expenses.  More clear and direct communication to students on the topic of financial aid would help lower this confusion.

If you are interested in sharing your experiences with money and financial aid at Minerva with the Quest, please reach out to Emma Stiefel ([email protected]), Erin Paglione ([email protected]), or any Quest editor. If you are interested in writing a personal piece or a report for the Quest on this topic, we encourage you to apply to receive payment for your work in hopes of incentivizing more students to contribute and partially compensating those who do.

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