Students faced a 4.5 percent increase in tuition this fall. Some returning students have said that the tuition increase has been hard on them and their families. Some can count off friends who have left because they can no longer afford Mills College. Still others fight to stay and graduate.
In March, a college officer explained to the Associated Students of Mills College (ASMC) that the increase would allow the College to meet its own increased costs.
“I want to assure you,” Jamie Nickel, Interim Vice President for Finance and Treasurer, told ASMC in March, “that the College does what we can to keep the percentage increase as low as possible, knowing that a lot of our students are on financial aid. We’re not trying to gouge you or anything. We’re just trying to keep a balanced budget.”
Senior Kirie Lange was at that March 28 ASMC meeting. She’s watched her tuition go up 16 percent in the four years she’s been at Mills.
Lange said the tuition increase has been hard on her family: “Because I’m supported by a two-parent income, there’s the assumption that it’s affordable for me to be here.”
Lange said she struggles just like the next student, but that struggle doesn’t seem so easily understood.
“It’s made it very difficult to know that I’m reaping the benefits of a beautiful education at the sacrifice that my parents are making financially. They haven’t been on vacation since I’ve been at Mills,” Lange said. “My brother’s in high school, and he hasn’t been able to have the luxuries, fun and expensive activities that I was able to have. My father has continued to maintain double employment just to help make ends meet for my family.”
Junior Ana Sanchez has two jobs herself. She is a residential assistant (RA) and works at Bon Appetit.
“I do not know of any students who have not been affected by the tuition increase,” Sanchez said. “I know of a few students who had to move off of campus mid-semester because of financial issues and a lot of people who are doing multiple work-study positions to pay for their tuition.”
Sanchez has issues paying for tuition herself.
“I’ve thought about transferring out a number of times,” she said, “but the RA position keeps me at school.”
Sanchez said she wants to be clear, however, that while it helps that RAs get comped for housing and meal plans, she chose to be an RA to serve the Mills community.
Christine Iyoha, who would have been a junior this fall, worked at the Tea Shop and in San Francisco while taking a full course load last year. She has since left Mills and earned transfer admission to the University of Southern California (USC), which she has deferred to Fall 2012.
Iyoha’s using her year off to work at Wasteland Clothing in Los Angeles and save up money so that she doesn’t have to have a second job off campus once she goes back to being a full-time student.
Iyoha left Mills for many reasons — she didn’t feel like she fit in, the courses didn’t reflect her interests — but the tuition increase was the deal breaker.
USC offered Iyoha work-study and multiple scholarships. “I am honestly happy I left (Mills),” Iyoha said. “I feel better that my dad isn’t struggling and stressing to pay for a school I wasn’t confident about.”
Iyoha’s experience with the financial aid service at both schools made a difference, too.
“I just never felt Mills appreciated their students the way a private school should,” she wrote. “USC has been ridiculously helpful. I have met with my counselor multiple times for at least an hour each meeting.”
Iyoha wrote that, in comparison, the Mills College M Center wasn’t particularly helpful to her.
“I have tried to talk to them about my difficult home life and it never phased them,” Iyoha wrote. “I know countless times I would go to the office and my adviser would not even be there, and when I left messages with other counselors — literally all four times someone else took a message — my counselor never received it. Or said she didn’t when I followed up. I just didn’t feel any sense of security being there in my financial position.”
Iyoha’s twin sister goes to the University of Rochester in New York. “They do all they can to help her, seeing as my father is a struggling business owner, still recovering from the economy issues and losing my mother — his business partner — three years ago and he is paying for both our schooling alone,” Iyoha said. “That is a family I feel like you should fight to help as a financial aid office.”
Meanwhile, Lange said she and her family fight to get help from Mills College Financial Aid. Lange’s mother ended up writing out the family’s detailed financial history in order to make the case for more aid.
“I find it almost disheartening to know that you have to tell all your business in order for your institution to financially support you,” Lange said.
Lange said she would have appreciated more empathy and care. Lange’s grandmother passed away shortly before the last school year began. Lange’s mother wrote to the M Center letting them know about the financial strain.
“We got a really dry response: ‘Okay, thanks.’ Where’s the understanding?” Lange said. “Not saying that everyone has to feel sorry for you because you lost someone. It just seemed like, ‘Okay, she passed away. Are you still going to make your payment?’ That’s how it was felt by myself and my family.”
David Gin, Associate Vice President for Student Finance and Administrative Services and Director of Financial Aid, expressed concern that students would feel that the M Center hasn’t listened to them or been sympathetic to their sensitive financial situations.
“If the staffer was rude, attacking personally, ignoring or not listening, then students should contact (Shari Keller, Director of Undergraduate Financial Aid),” Gin said.
It’s important to remember, Gin said, that there’s a certain amount of eligibility and funds available for financial aid. The financial aid award is not really a staff member’s decision to make.
“If we can’t give you funds, it doesn’t mean we’re not sympathetic to your case,” he said.
Sometimes federal regulations allow financial aid staff to make certain considerations based on certain circumstances, which can warrant a federal exception that the staff can legally make.
“That unfortunately requires us to delve into a student’s personal life,” Gin said. “If my staffer was listening, taking information down and trying to ask questions, trying to figure out possible alternatives — that’s really what they’re supposed to do. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s uncomfortable.”
Gin said he knows what it’s like. He was a first-generation student himself and felt frustrated when financial aid could not offer him more money when his parents became unemployed.
“I felt frustrated,” he said. “I thought that maybe the person didn’t buy my story.”
It was only until Gin began working in the financial aid office as a work-study student and then joined the financial aid profession that he realized that, sometimes, there are just no financial aid dollars to give.
Gin said we all — students and campus community alike — take responsibility for getting students through school and to graduation.
“Believe me,” Gin said, “I want you here. Everybody wants you here. We are a community , and we believe in the goals of the College to educate undergrad women to become leaders and develop their voice, whatever their voice is. I’m passionate about that mission.”
Gin said he’s excited to see new students at orientation, then see them four — or two, if they transfer — years later in the graduation procession.
“That’s the most important thing,” he said.
That’s the most important thing for Lange and her family, too. For Lange, leaving Mills is not an option, and she is going to graduate this May.
“For everything you want, you have to fight the good fight,” Lange said. “So I’m going to do whatever it takes to be here, even if that means writing emails, getting letters of support, sitting in the M Center for hours, getting paperwork signed. When I signed my acceptance letter, that meant I was going to come here and I was going to finish.”