This piece is part of a series of financial aid-focused student profiles. These student stories are part of our ongoing reporting on financial aid. You can also read a report about transparency and communication in financial aid, our analysis of a student survey about financial aid, and our reports on the financial aid Day of Action and subsequent town hall.
The M’19 Inaugural Class alumna who was interviewed for this piece requested to remain anonymous. Given that she is a “middle-class student from a ‘developing’ country [in Asia],” she knew she would need generous financial aid to afford Minerva. “The currencies just don’t sync up,” she told the Quest. “If you’re from a country like [mine], something that’s a standard price in the US is a luxury good here.” The cost of attending was a significant factor in her decision to attend Minerva.
This alum repeatedly asked Minerva staff for more details about financial aid before enrolling. She remembered being assured that she would receive a scholarship to cover at least her tuition and a loan and work-study position to pay for other expenses. At the time, work-study positions were 15 hours/week at $15/hour, so, using those numbers, she calculated her income and expenses for four years at Minerva, concluded that she could afford it, and enrolled.
For other costs that were necessary but not directly covered by Minerva’s financial aid package, this alum relied on an external sponsor. This other scholarship source only had enough funds to support her during her first year, but it paid for a new MacBook that met Minerva’s requirements — just one example of a necessary cost that Minerva’s financial aid doesn’t cover directly.
During her first year at Minerva, this alum was very confident in the reliability of the financial aid system. She had a work-study position that guaranteed her consistent hours and therefore a steady income that was sufficient to pay for everyday living costs and other expenses. In the summer after her first year, she worked on Minerva’s outreach team to recruit applicants for the class of 2021. She would do the math for prospective students and their parents to demonstrate how affordable it was.
“We were transparent about [the costs],” this alum said. “At that time, it was a really good American program financially. It really was a good option for people from middle-class families from developing countries. It was easy to justify back then.”
“Basically, if you’re poor by US standards and cannot afford the ‘Minerva lifestyle,’ you have two options. Sacrifice your spare time and work — if work is even available for you in the first place — or cut down on ‘non-essential’ expenses that come with living abroad and spend a lot of time finding bargains and discounts to acquire basic necessities at the cheapest prices.”Anonymous M’19 Alum
In her second year, however, this alum recalled Minerva’s decision to reduce the work-study amount from 15 to 10 hours/week to accommodate a new class of students who also needed work-study funds. She tried to ask for more hours but ended up averaging no more than 10 hours/week, losing about $75 in pre-tax weekly income. At the time, Minerva’s second-year Fall semester location was Berlin, and this alum remembers cutting back her expenses to the bare minimum while in the city — she only went out to eat three times, to celebrate birthdays with her friends.
“Basically, if you’re poor by US standards and cannot afford the ‘Minerva lifestyle,’ you have two options,” this alum said. “Sacrifice your spare time and work — if work is even available for you in the first place — or cut down on ‘non-essential’ expenses that come with living abroad and spend a lot of time finding bargains and discounts to acquire basic necessities at the cheapest prices.”
After struggling financially during her second year, this alum decided she wouldn’t work for Minerva’s outreach team again. She had heard from some of the M’21 students she had helped recruit that the financial aid they received fell short of the high expectations she had helped set for them — in some cases, a student’s family had to “alter their own lives” to afford Minerva. This alum told the Quest, “It was pretty devastating knowing that I played a big role in giving those students the impression that Minerva’s financial aid would be adequate.”
At times, this alum’s Minerva experience was extremely disrupted by her financial situation. In order to secure a visa for one rotation city, students from her nationality had to have a minimum amount in their bank account to receive a visa. However, she barely had half the amount, so she knew she wouldn’t qualify for a visa and instead went off rotation.
Like most students on financial aid, this M’19 alum took out Climb loans to pay for costs her scholarship and work-study didn’t cover. “[The scholarship I received] was the most Minerva could give,” this alum told the Quest. “Nobody could get a full scholarship [to cover 100% of the cost of attending Minerva]. You still needed to take out a loan.”
Worried about being burdened with debt after graduation, she tried to avoid taking out loans as much as possible. By budgeting her work-study income, she managed to forego taking out a loan during her last year and paid the cost directly instead. However, the approximate $8,000 worth of debt she had to pay after graduation was still an intimidating sum, especially after converting it into her home country’s currency.
Like many other Minerva students, she knew that one of her only options for paying off her debt would be getting a high-paying job in the US or EU. To secure a lucrative position in the US, however, international applicants like herself must pay to apply for OPT and then a work visa. US H-1B work visas are awarded via a lottery process, so applicants bear the risk of being rejected. This alum knew she couldn’t afford to take that kind of risk with her financial future.
“I know a lot of people in my class who worked [in the US] and still were forced to flee because they didn’t get the lottery on their side,” she told the Quest. “It was too much of a risk for me financially. I can’t afford to pay for something that doesn’t have a guarantee. I don’t have any safety nets.”
Instead, this alum decided her best chance of paying back her debt was attending a graduate school on a generous grant — she successfully found a program and financial support. “I consider myself fortunate for having a relatively small loan and for getting a generous postgrad grant in a program that’s aligned with my academic interests,” she told the Quest. “However, I feel like the days I spent at Minerva living on the bare minimum haven’t ended after graduation.”
Currently, this alum is living at home while attending online grad school classes. She pays for her housing, and some of her family depends on her for financial support. Given her situation, this alum is already bracing for life after completing grad school. She’s carefully budgeting her grant so that she can have savings to fall back on if she struggles to find a job in a tough market. She’s also saving up to relocate for work after she graduates from grad school, which is a requirement of her grant funding.
“I know a lot of people in my class who worked [in the US] and still were forced to flee because they didn’t get the lottery on their side. It was too much of a risk for me financially. I can’t afford to pay for something that doesn’t have a guarantee. I don’t have any safety nets.”Anonymous M’19 Alum
Given the choice of starting over, the alum said that she would still enroll at Minerva again, provided that she received the same level of financial support she did during her first year. For her, the community and knowledge she gained have been worth the financial stress. In her grad school classes, for example, she has seen the skills she developed at Minerva pay off.
She was less certain, however, that she would advise younger students to enroll in Minerva given how she saw work-study income decrease during her time at the school. Instead, she advises them to “ask and ask and ask” the financial aid team about costs and financial aid options before enrolling.
“Do not think that you’re bothering them or annoying them with questions, because it is your right to know,” this alum said. “Do the math and ask Minerva if [the finances you’re quoted are] going to be the case for the next few years. Grill them with questions, because this program is always evolving. [Ask about] the hidden costs especially, tuition fees are just the surface level.”
At this point, the alum pointed out, Minerva has collected survey data from multiple cohorts about living costs in every city. She believes this data should be used to make younger Minerva students aware of “hidden” but required costs like student visa fees and varying city-specific expenses. This alum also encouraged students with work-study placements to identify and try to secure roles that would give them consistent hours, like being a tech-support assistant, if they need the steady income.
Ultimately, she hopes that students demanding and receiving more information about finances at Minerva will prevent others from having their post-graduation decisions constrained as hers were. If she didn’t have to pay back her loans, this alum would have taken a job at one of the think tanks she applied to, but they didn’t pay as much as her grad school grant.
“I’m particularly worried for those who have a similar middle-class, ‘third world’ background,” this alum said, “because I now know this financial aid scheme will continue to impact their life decisions and narrow their options even after Minerva.”
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.
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