Trustees Vote to Continue No-Loans Policy
By Haley Castro '11, Editor-in-Chief
When classes resumed at the beginning of the academic school year, students were met with a variety of budget cuts across campus, ranging from the end of Val Specials, an administrative backlash against course readers, to an increased expected student summer savings. But, these were only the first round of cuts; the Advisory Budgetary Committee’s (ABC) report — released this past summer — included a recommendation for an additional $1.45 million cut in financial aid projections.

In a press release on Jan. 26, College President Anthony Marx announced that in order to fulfill this recommendation the Board determined that “by maintaining the original targets set for [the community college transfer program, and the College’s international student population], together with the small increase in summer savings expectations for students on aid … the ABC goal for reductions of financial aid would be met.” This decision was made despite a faculty recommendation for reinstituting loans, which was voted on in the last Faculty Meeting.

At the Dec. 15 Faculty Meeting, the Faculty Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid (FCAFA) presented three different plans for cutting financial aid to the levels recommended by the ABC. Each proposal included an increase in summer savings, and a 50 percent reduction in the community college transfer program — a decrease from roughly 34 to 17 transfer students. According to the various solutions, these two reductions would be paired with: drawing from the College’s financial aid reserves, reinstituting loans or setting the international student population at a firm eight percent — the most recent class is 10 percent international students.

A lengthy debate ensued, with a majority of faculty members criticizing the decision to cut the community college transfer program as well as the attempt to limit international student class percentages. In the end, the faculty voted overwhelmingly to reject FCAFA’s three options in favor of a recommendation to the Board that the College reinstitute loans as soon as possible, consciously leaving out recommendations to cut the community college transfer program and international student percentages.

The Board considered the large faculty support for reinstituting loans, but argued in favor of continuing the current no-loans policy because “there is preliminary evidence that the elimination of loans has had the intended effect of reducing the College’s under-representation among qualified students from the middle three income quintiles, and that since the elimination of loans was instituted, the number of top academic enrolled students has increased. The no-loan policy has also reduced an excessive financial burden on middle class student families.”

Tanika Vigil ’10, a student member of FCAFA, said in response to the Trustee decision, “I am happy to see that they genuinely took the FCAFA report, along with faculty and student input, into consideration. I am proud to see that there are open mediums of communication at this school. The collaboration of students, faculty, staff and alumni has been truly incredible throughout the process of budgetary cuts.”

Marx also enthusiastically supported the outcome of the Trustee meeting, saying, “We have reduced projected budget expenditures while preserving the financial aid policies that help bring us the most talented and most diverse group of students, protecting our staff from layoffs, and continuing to support and build our faculty with an extraordinary number of new appointments this year. I remain grateful to the community as a whole for your participation in the inclusive process which has brought us to this outcome we feared would not be possible even a short time ago.”

Vigil’s fellow FCAFA student representative, Elias Aba Milki ’10, is also happy with the Trustee decision on loans, but was disappointed with the decision to limit two important student groups that add to the diversity of the campus.

“Although I was worried the Trustees would make more drastic cuts to the financial aid budget, I am very disappointed by the disproportionate aspect of the cuts,” he said. “It is great that they have decided to maintain the no-loans policy, which will hopefully increase the population of students from middle income families. However, our international population, which has increased from six percent to eight percent in just a few years, is still low. The community college population of 34 is even worse. Yet, the Trustees have decided to target the international population at eight percent and community college population at a measly 25 students, in a student body of about 1600 (that’s 0.015 percent).”

He continued, claiming, “They should have tried to make the whole campus share the sacrifice, rather than backtracking on the diverse student body we were growing into. This has huge implications for the education people will receive at Amherst. Although, after serving on FCAFA, I recognize that it’s much harder to cut financial aid costs without targeting those who can’t afford to come to Amherst, which is why the Trustees should have reconsidered making any further cuts after increasing expected earnings. The ABC made recommendations on the amount that needs to be cut from financial aid more than six months ago, before we saw the economy improving and the campaign doing so well. Why have we not revised that amount if the economic climate is not what it was in the summer?”

Student opinion seems to be mixed, however, with the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) Senator Nic Zhou ’10 pointing out that the student body as a whole has already been asked to contribute to the cutbacks. He said, “It is important to note that [the community college transfer program and the international student population] will still operate at their originally intended levels, and that even with the envisioned cuts, Amherst will remain a leader in financial aid for both international students as well as community college transfers. Maintaining the College’s support for both groups is absolutely essential of course — these cuts, while unfortunate, certainly do not compromise either program’s viability, nor should it significantly harm the tremendous progress that the College has made over the past few years in broadening the diversity of its student body.”

“By choosing to make cuts to multiple programs rather than calling for a single program to bear most of the weight, the Trustees have held to the principle of sharing the pain of the reductions. This principle was similarly applied to the reductions required of academic and administrative departments,” claimed Zhou.

With mixed reviews and an uncertain economic future, Marx noted that the financial aid policy is subject to change if the financial position of the College changes. “The Board agrees with the faculty and others that if the situation or the competitive environment were to change, then we would collectively consider the necessary means to safeguard Amherst’s core qualities. If, for example, aid programs for our most financially needy students were threatened or the College became unable to continue to support and invest in our faculty and staff, then we would reconsider the student loan policy, together with other options. ”

This decision came roughly one week before rival Williams College announced a return to loans. According to a letter released by Williams’ interim president Bill Wagner, now that their endowment has lost $500 million, “it … seems prudent to reintroduce modest loans for some aided students, beginning with the class that enters in the fall of 2011.” He continued, saying “Williams is in a strong financial situation by virtually any comparison — except with the Williams of three years ago.”

According to the letter, this policy will not impact current students, students entering this fall or students below an unspecified income level. Despite Wagner’s positive outlook, however, the announcement has created backlash from the greater Williams community. Williams alumnus David Kane told Business Week, “It’s a shame. Williams ought to be cutting money elsewhere and financial aid ought to be the last cut it makes.”

Williams’ announcement caused some concern on the Amherst campus concerning the future of the College’s financial aid policy. Vigil said, “I hope that, in the midst of Williams’ recent decision to return to loans, that we continue to embrace a transparent and inclusive process that focuses on what is best for the education of Amherst students.”

In response to inquiries concerning the impact of Williams’ decision on Amherst policy, Marx reiterated the Trustees’ commitment to the values and policies announced last week.

Marx explained, “The Trustees made their decision based on the merits [of the no-loans policy] and the Williams’ announcement has not changed their view that no-loans has helped us enroll more middle income and great students, and reduced the constraint on career choices that debt can impose. As long as no-loans has these positive outcomes, can be afforded within our budget and its cost does not threaten the quality of education or other aid programs, it seems worth maintaining, while we continue to assess its impact.”

Issue 13, Submitted 2010-02-03 02:58:30