A group of students on-campus have been organizing meetings in order to combat their rising bills from Mills and find a solution for higher student retention for marginalized communities.
De’ana Brownfield began asking students who were struggling to stay enrolled at Mills to organize with her over the summer. In the first week of the semester, the group of students met with President Beth Hillman to discuss their thoughts on student retention.
“I really feel like a lot of the students are just being seen as profit,” Brownfield said. “They’re not really considering our experiences as students that are people of color and also from low socio-economic backgrounds.”
Among the group of students who met with President Hillman is Fia Mendieta, who was nearly unable to return to Mills after receiving an unusually high bill.
“I remember specifically looking at the numbers and wondering ‘how did it jump to this, literally twice as much as last year,’” Mendieta said. “I can’t pay this.”
While tuition prices at colleges and universities go up each year according to the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI), an index of how much more it will cost to run a college each year, the amount that Mills raises its tuition each year is generally between one to two percent, which is raising faster than inflation.
“Our costs go up faster for a number of different reasons related to licensing and tech infrastructure and benefits cost and those sorts of things,” Hillman said. “So there is no set increase every year for tuition.”
However, room and board costs did increase this year, which is why students’ bills might be significantly higher than the previous year.
“Room and board wasn’t part of the tuition reset,” Hillman said. “A few hundred dollars generally was the increase in room and board for students.”
Another reason many Mills students were unable to return was due to a government verification process for receiving financial aid.
“The federal government selected more students than we have had in the past for a process called verification where they had to submit additional documents to qualify for federal grants,” Hillman said. “It imposed another obstacle to people before their grants could be made, and if they hadn’t finished that process then Mills didn’t have a chance to finish the Mills aid packaging part of it when they were still in that verification process.”
Among the students unable to return to Mills for financial reasons is former student Molly Hafer, who says she did not have time to find extra funding for her education at Mills.
“The amount I was personally responsible doubled in size and I received my package late in the summer,” Hafer said. “Which left me unable to apply for any substantial scholarships.”
When Brownfield received her bill, there were many errors that needed correcting, and she felt the pressure and anxiety that comes with scrambling for housing on short notice.
“When I finally got an accurate number for my package, it was too much and it was also two weeks before school started, so I had to drop my housing and I had no clue where I was living for a week,” Brownfield said. “It’s very stressful to be put in that position.”
Mendieta has noticed that former students are missing from campus, and believes that these absences are amplified by the small size of the Mills community.
“We’re such a small community and tight knit, we notice that there are people missing and people that left prematurely and didn’t even want to because they were pushed out,” Mendieta said. “The effects have obviously been felt by the student community.”
The group of students are focused on retention initiatives, and believe that the Mills administration should be focusing on keeping current students at Mills over recruiting new prospective students. Brownfield feels that the emphasis on future students rather than current students, especially students of color, goes against Mills’ social justice platform.
“How are you going to be about social justice if you can’t even retain students of color that are doing the activism and doing the work in Oakland?” Brownfield asked. “It’s definitely going to change the culture of Mills, and it feels like we’re being tokenized. They might as well just change their whole statement.”
While the tuition reset, which lowered both tuition and institutional aid by $16,000, was geared towards prospective students, Mills introduced new initiatives this semester to increase current student retention.
“The way that we pushed that out last year in terms of the messaging was focused on new students,” Hillman said. “But we really intend for those opportunities to be available to improve the structure for existing students too.”
The new opportunities include the new Associate Provost, additional advising resources, MPOWER, and integrating the careers, advising and global learning functions into one office.
“Those are all examples of connecting our student life and academic affairs to better support students who we know succeed at higher rates when they feel a sense of belonging and a sense of community whether they are commuter students or residents on-campus,” Hillman said.
Along with the new retention initiatives in place, Hillman says that the administration also needs to reach out and speak with students more about what’s happening on-campus.
“Communication is such a big part of what we need to do more of and we need to be better,” Hillman said.
Hillman appreciated sitting down with the group of students and discussing the ways in which they were struggling to pay their tuition.
“It’s always good for me to hear directly from students,” Hillman said. “When they’re willing to sit down and talk to me I can hear about the challenges they face and frustrations they have in dealing with the administrative part of paying for college and it drives home to me.”
Hillman and the group of students are planning to meet again soon to ensure that the discussion continues.
“We’ll have a follow up meeting and try to communicate more about this and also try to engage students more often throughout the year,” Hillman said.
While so many students face difficulties paying for their college tuition, Hillman feels that it is important to listen to students argue their case, and that Mills cannot help the students until the administration hears their complaints.
“We have to do better,” Hillman said. “It’s important to me that things are getting better, and if I don’t know what’s happening then I can’t make sure they’re getting better.”
Brownfield was pleased with the amount of students that have reached out to her to take part in these conversations, and hopes that more will step forward to share their own voices and stories.
“We need more people to step forward, we need voices because we can’t tell your experience as a person who may be in another marginalized community, we can’t speak on those issues because that’s not our reality,” Brownfield said. “Our reality comes from being a person of color and being at this institution.”