Systemic inequity in higher education

By Kaitlyn McCormick

Multiple monitory and first-generation students at Rider have had to drop-out of university due to financial constraints, especially after implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. In most of these cases, however, Rider’s financial aid department’s hands are unfortunately tied.

Now a bigger question is being posed: How can an equitable college experience be created in an inherently inequitable society?

Rider’s website makes this promise: “We’re committed to making your education affordable, and personalized to your financial needs, from start to finish.” But, based on student testimonials, this statement is not always true.

Roberto Dacosta-Reyes story

Criminal justice major Roberto Dacosta-Reyes only had a semester and change left of his career at Rider when he realized, due to extenuating financial circumstances caused largely by the pandemic, that he would have to leave the school with three-and-a-half years of debt and no degree to show for it.

Dacosta-Reyes’ individual situation involved many complexities, from his parents’ financial situation changing due to the pandemic, being unable to find a co-signer for a private loan, not qualifying for certain endowment funds and being offered a payment plan that he said was still too high of a balance to make work.

What is even more upsetting in Dacosta-Reyes’ case is the sheer amount of involvement he afforded Rider — peer mentorship in the Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI), involvement in the Multicultural Student Leadership Institute and work as a student panelist for diversity. Despite this extensive resume, there was still no way to supplement his remaining outstanding balance.

“It feels like they didn’t care at all … [the] amount of engagement I had in the school. And that sucks,” Dacosta-Reyes said.

Rider has made big strides in committing itself to diversity, equity and inclusion, and one would think that Dacosta-Reyes’s case, specifically as a Black male student, would be a great opportunity to practice creative and innovative solutions. While Rider’s financial aid office may have only been able to alleviate Dacosta-Reyes’s balance to an extent, there needs to be a push for greater problem solving.

“The fact that I’ve been here for four years, the fact that as soon as I got here, I was implemented into diversity groups. And I was in a lot of committees. … I’ve done so many open houses, admitted students days,” Dacosta-Reyes said.

Political science professor Sarah Trocchio worked closely with Dacosta-Reyes as both his adviser and a scholar versed in inequity. Trocchio described him as a “vocal and leading sort of voice for the student community at Rider.”

“There’s so much institutional discussion about the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. … But we know that the impacts financially of this crisis, and in terms of public health, have been not fairly borne by race and ethnicity, just like everything else,” Trocchio said.

A common experience

English major Andrea Iragorri is another student whose enrollment suffered following financial difficulties. She was forced to leave Rider just before the start of her senior year.

Iragorri, a Hispanic first-generation student, explained the difficulties of navigating financial aid as someone putting themselves through college without anyone at home to be a sounding-board for the experience.

“I’m just another student who can’t go to school anymore,” Iragorri said

It seems likely that issues such as these will continue to occur, especially as demographics continue to shift in Rider’s student body. Roy Onfroy, a sophomore computer science major, has already run into concerns surrounding financial aid and the cost of tuition.

Following an issue with scholarship and other financial resources the summer before his sophomore year, Onfroy’s account balance remained larger than expected, which he described as “kind of a spooky number.”

Onfroy said the experience gave him a lot of stress and anxiety.

While Onfroy was able to work out his specific situation with the financial aid office and remain at Rider, not every student is so lucky. This specific success does not occur without unforeseen emotional tolls – in Onfroy’s case, feeling as though he had to portray himself as an “angry black man” to get the help he needed.

Its students are the heart of Rider — students who genuinely want to be involved in the community. There needs to be a harder push to keep them here, especially those who have already dedicated so much time improving the university.

Restrictions in financial aid

James Conlon, executive director of Rider’s One Stop Services and Edward Hill, executive director of financial aid, further explained the specific strictures and regulations that make it harder to remedy strenuous financial situations in certain student cases.

Conlon said, “There are a lot of cases where we can’t do anything because of regulations or because of the situations. We have to follow specific federal regs [regulations] and state regs.

“With university funds we have to be fair and equitable to everyone. …We have to be able to make the case as to why somebody got a certain amount versus another amount. …We can’t give one person one thing who doesn’t qualify for it just because we feel like it. …We have to provide documentation around it.”

Working with in-depth student cases requires a look at specific documentations, incomes and maneuvering within hard rules, and due to these restrictions as well as just general funding, Conlon emphasized that the university is not in the position to foot the bill for multiple students.

Hill said, “Even if, you know, our hearts bleed for those students that tell us this, if they cannot have the documentation, we don’t have the authority to make a change.”

Although the financial aid staff only has so much power around a student’s outstanding balance, Rider needs to re-evaluate what makes a student valuable enough to be awarded special university-funded scholarships. In Dacosta-Reyes’ case for example, it is unfathomable that a university that has made diversity, equity and inclusion a cornerstone of its marketing would not fight harder to keep a student who has become a face for diversity, participating in photo shoots for CDI and being overwhelmingly involved diversity programs and events on campus, in its ranks.

Rider’s plans

Rider’s Inclusive Excellence Plan, implemented during the 2019-2020 academic year, outlines plans and commitments made by the university.

One objective covered is “identify[ing], assess[ing] and enhanc[ing] programs that support financial stability for all students, with an understanding that these may have an additionally significant impact on under-resourced students.”

Actions taken within these objectives include, but are not limited to, “Enhanced communication with new students and families as a part of orientation regarding financial aid processes and resources. … Continued to provide financial literacy sessions for students and families. … Formalized application and decision process and criteria for student emergency aid.”

While this plan is new and continuing to grow, students are still experiencing the adverse effects of systemic inequity associated with higher education in real time.

The need to think outside the box

While there may only be so much Rider’s financial aid department can feasibly do from a legal and financial standpoint, there needs to be a greater push on the administrative level to employ creative and functional solutions to keep students enrolled, especially students Rider claims to care about.

In the words of Onfroy, “I know it takes time for change, but it can’t take that much time.”

One solution worth exploring? A fund to benefit underrepresented and minority students experiencing unexpected financial changes that may prevent them from graduating.

According to an email from University spokeswoman Kristine Brown, “Rider does not have a fund specifically for underrepresented and under-resourced students as financially struggling is not limited to just those groups of students.”

Brown added that Rider does have a Student Emergency Relief Fund, however that resource typically aids with textbooks and smaller outstanding balances.

The experiences of students at Rider struggling with financial aid are only a small reflection of society’s larger issues of inequity. Rider is just a microcosm of students impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and larger, interconnected issues surrounding the price of higher education. These issues will only continue to grow if not combatted on both national and school- specific levels.

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