W&L’s Improving Financial Accessibility
Douglas Ciampi (‘19)-
The past few years has seen some excellent strides at increasing the opportunities that students from First Generation-Low Income (FGLI) backgrounds have here at W&L, many of which have been spearheaded by passionate students with such background experiences. The W&L Promise, and its relatively recent extension to families who earn up to $100,000, has opened the door to many high-achieving students who would otherwise be unable to attend college without significant financial assistance. The W&L Spectator would obviously like to extend our full-fledged support for this program, and the generous donors who make such a program possible.
This year has seen the rapid growth of the First Generation Low Income Partnership (FLIP), a student organization who has championed for improving the lives and experiences of those at W&L who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. In just the first year the group has managed achieve some very impressive changes which address issues that are more often than not overlooked by those who simply cannot relate to many of the unique challenges faced by students from such backgrounds at W&L.
The accomplishments have been numerous and impactful. Ultimately the most important success has been the creation of mentorship groups and partnerships with faculty who grew up under similar circumstances. While this may seem less impressive than some of their other feats on the surface, this program has given many students a sense of belonging and solidarity that previously was not found on this campus, and the relationships that have been formed with faculty as a result of this program have reassured students that some of their professors can relate to the struggles they are facing, and can at the very least provide an understanding ear.
The creation of a campus food pantry by Ms. Reese ('19 )and the fostering of a lending library for textbooks (started by Mr. Castellanos ’20) has also filled in an important gap that has existed between the administration and students in need. Ideally, neither of these services should have to exist, but the bottom line is they need to under the current circumstances on campus. In addition to providing legitimate help to students who need it, these services also provide a sense of safety and reassurance for students who face resource insecurity at home and at W&L.
Smaller deeds have also not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. The group has helped to negotiate more affordable ticket prices to events such as Fancy Dress, a rite-of-passage at Washington and Lee that comes with a hefty financial cost for anyone looking to participate. Laundry services at W&L have also long been an issue, with students largely being forced to choose between an exceptionally costly service provided through University Cleaners, or using frankly overpriced coin-operated machines, some of which particularly in Woods Creek, are old and used enough that multiple cycles are required. Thanks to the work of FLIP, this will no longer be an issue for students on campus come next year.
As Ms. Spiezio (‘17) detailed in her excellent article “5 Ways Washington and Lee Could Better Support Low-Income Students” (https://www.theodysseyonline.com/washington-lee-better-support-low-income-students), there is still progress to be made in order to make W&L a more perfect university for FGLI students.
Notably, Ms. Spiezio’s recommendation regarding student account withdrawals is likely the most significant change that could really fundamentally impact low income students on campus. For background, students receiving financial aid have historically not had access to those funds until the first or second week of classes, presumably to guarantee that the student will be attending full time that semester, in addition to certain federal and state aid programs simply not dispersing funds until partially into the school year. Progress by the Diversity and First-Generation Working Group this year has resulted in access to these accounts opening up slightly earlier, around the beginning of August.
As someone who greatly relies on that aid in order to attend W&L, not having access to those funds poses a significant issue for me and those in a similar situation. Those who have to fly to school (and then travel from the airport to Lexington), purchase school and dorm supplies, and so forth, are met with a significant barrier when compared to their peers.
The struggles of senior year and off-campus living do not make the situation any easier. Depending on the needs of the students and their lease agreements, some students have to produce upwards of three months’ rent and utilities – before they receive any of their financial aid for the following year. For many at W&L, a simple call would resolve that issue, but for others that means significant struggles and cutbacks will be had over the summer months in order to insure that they are able to enjoy the same experiences so many others here get.
There are obvious barriers to accomplishing this, namely the fact that much of the financial aid paperwork is handled over the summer months, and most of the time financial aid offers will not be finalized until mid-summer. That does not mean there are no options to reform the system in order to make W&L more accessible for low income students. Providing access to a percentage of the previous year’s financial aid (subtracted from the upcoming year’s award come the start of classes) or loans from the institution available at the start of the summer that are automatically paid off when accounts become available for withdrawal in September and students resume their full time enrollment, are conceivable options to significantly ease the lives of many students.
Generally, the issue is not so much that W&L is not providing adequate financial aid, but that the timing of access to that money makes it challenging for many students. A reform of this system would be relatively simple, would not add much cost for the university, and would drastically improve the lives of many FGLI students.
Another area that could see some improvements on the part of the university, is Dining Services. Overall they have been exceedingly understanding of the situations that many students face and have been willing to compromise where they are able to. But there still remains some issues with the system.
The bottom line is some students at W&L do not have to worry about food costs, while others have to perform weekly accounting on how many meal swipes they have remaining, how much Food Flex they have, and how many meals (or meal) they will be able to have that day. No student is on a seven meal per week plan because they enjoy a single dish per day. It is because they have to be.
Inequality is ugly as all hell, but especially when it comes to food. At a school like Washington and Lee, there really is no reason such a disparity needs to exist. A university that prides itself on the uniqueness of its climate, its adherence to the values of the liberal arts, and the size of its endowment, should do everything it can to make sure that a student’s financial background is not impacting their access to or the quality of their food.
I believe it is relatively safe to say that everyone here at Washington and Lee who relies on the generous assistance of the school is profoundly grateful for the aid they receive and wishes the best for the school. It is this wanting the best for W&L that drives groups like FLIP and the students who make it up. Attending Washington and Lee was by far the best choice of my life, and I want to make sure that the experiences I have had here are available to everyone who seeks them.
I would again like to extend my appreciation for FLIP, the students who make it up, the professors who provide mentorship, and the University and the donors who make having this discussion possible. Thank you.