A Little Different: Financial Aid at OES

by Elise Kuechle

The week before I started at OES as a freshman, I had lunch with my grandma, a very straight forward, somewhat old fashioned woman. She told me something that day that has stuck with me throughout high school.

In a whisper, she said to me, “You know, you don’t have to tell people you’re on financial aid.” The implication: If no one knows, no one can judge you. Turns out, I’ve never been great at heeding advice. Sorry, Grandma.

One in six students at OES receive financial aid in some amount. That means that, in a class of 18, three students are on financial aid. That number is higher in the Upper School. Currently, OES’s admissions is need blind, but the Financial Aid Office says they’re moving towards a more need aware system.

According to Gretchen Reed, the CFO, and Jen Bash, the Assistant Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, the process of deciding whether or not a student is qualified to attend OES is need blind, but the decision to offer enrollment is need aware. “We need to know if there’s aid dollars to cover their tuition,” remarked Gretchen in an interview. Next year, $2.9 million will go towards financial aid — about 10.5% of the school’s overall budget.

Jen and Gretchen assured me that this amount is only on the rise, especially with the recent tuition increases. Another important thing to note about the financial aid program at OES: the school only offers need based financial aid- no merit aid or scholarships. This is because, as Jen remarked, “ [The financial aid office] would rather give resources to kids who want to be here and can’t be, instead of rewarding abilities that are hard to measure.”

Growing socioeconomic diversity is a priority at OES because as Gretchen pointed out, “The experience that families and students who couldn’t otherwise afford full tuition is so important to the experience of the community that we couldn’t not afford to offer financial aid.” But what is that experience truly like?

I spoke to six students in the Upper School about their experiences on financial aid at OES. Three common threads seem to weave throughout each of their stories.

Firstly: Kids on financial aid aren’t that different. For many of the students that I talked to, attending OES on financial aid is not constantly on the forefront of their minds, nor does it impact many of their day to day interactions.

Hannah W. remarked, “It hasn’t made a very significant difference — I forget about it sometimes.” In a community as concerned with inclusion and sensitivity as OES is, that’s not surprising. Wealth and privilege isn’t something we talk about every day (more on that later).

For me personally, as I go about my daily school life, it can be easy to sink into a routine that skims over the differences between me and my peers. One student commented, “It’s a big deal and it isn’t, too. When I tell people I’m on financial aid, I expect them to be like, ‘What? That’s ridiculous!’ But they’re usually cool with it.” In my experience, I’ve found those words to be very true: being on financial aid really isn’t a big deal, but then sometimes, it is.

Secondly:  The differences, however large or small, do matter. Going on multiple Winterim trips without having to worry about cost. Being gifted a car. Giving as much money to Midwinter Madness as you want. Having a college fund, or not having to worry about paying for college. Owning expensive watches, shoes, and clothes. Not having to shop sales to get those items. Having a debit or credit card. Going on vacation, either domestically or internationally. Owning multiple houses. Owning a house at all. These were just some of the things that came up during the interviews.

As Aley B. told me, “The community here is incredible, but sometimes, there’s a culture I just don’t belong to. I’m still different.” As much as OES pushes inclusion, it is things like the list above that contributes to that feeling of being out of place. I asked every student I interviewed if they agreed with Aley’s statement, and to varying degrees, they all said yes.

“There’s OES, and then

there’s the other people.”

When do these differences come out in daily life, though? According to Hayden N, it is: “Seeing other people’s social media portraying wealth. Nothing disrespectful — just an obvious disregard for their privilege.” Another recipient of financial aid told me, “It happens for a brief moment in an exchange of two or three minutes and then gets disregarded. [Each situation] is impactful, but they’re so small.”

For another student, these differences can surface in the assumptions that are made every day. They remarked, “There’s a whole culture of the assumption that everyone has lots of opportunities — a lot of times when we talk about “poor people at OES,” it’s the poor people that go to public school. There’s OES, and then there’s the other people.” On the whole, the moments when socioeconomic differences come to light may be small, but their impact is anything but.

Thirdly: If we talked about financial aid and socioeconomic diversity more, the experience of being on financial aid would be easier. Although we’re encouraged to celebrate our differences at OES, it is rare to truly actualize this sentiment.

In one interview, a student told me, “I’ve never had an interaction with someone who was on financial aid too. I’ve never heard someone talk about it. I sort of guessed, but never outwardly heard someone say “I’m on financial aid too.” Broadly, the subject of money is taboo in our culture, and the microcosm of OES is no exception.

Aley B. also noted that, “For the longest time, I felt like I wasn’t supposed to talk about [being on financial aid]. Only recently did I learn that it’s an important thing to talk about, and I wish that its importance had been established from the beginning.”

This sentiment of secrecy around financial aid was echoed by other interviewees. Hannah W. stated plainly, “[Financial aid] is not something that you talk about.”

“….being silent like I’ve done for so long”

Conversation is the first step to removing these roadblocks when it comes to talking about privilege at OES. With a background in teaching in schools with a range of socioeconomic levels, Liz Weiler believes that starting a dialogue around financial aid and economic diversity is crucial. She stated, “It can be uncomfortable to face head on the privileges that come along with wealth — it’s not something that shows outwardly, and so it’s easier to sweep under the mat. When you start to talk about it, you start to be able to have some conversations and bring it to people’s attention.”

Many students interviewed for this article agree. One remarked, “I’d feel better if there was more of a possibility for conversation. If we were talking about socioeconomic experience in class I could speak up instead of being silent like I’ve done for so long.”

As a student on financial aid at OES, I too feel like I have been silent for too long. I don’t walk around the Upper School every day with a chip on my shoulder because I don’t come from the same background as my peers, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t notice. For me, being on financial aid has made me feel like something of a double agent. I come to school and try my best to fit in with this community and its inherent culture of wealth and privilege, and then at home, along with my mom, I become the person who thinks about things like heating bills and making rent.

At school, I worry about whether the wifi is working fast enough, or if the cafeteria is serving something good for lunch, and at home, I worry about if we can afford to send me back to school for another year. It is this double standard that at times makes being on financial aid at OES difficult.

“….more of a melting pot and

less of an echo chamber.”

I’m not complaining, and no one I interviewed truly was, either. Everyone who attends OES, on financial aid or not, is incredibly fortunate. I wouldn’t trade my experiences, friends, or community here for anything.

But so often, OES talks the talk about diversity and being “always open,” and I think it’s about time that we started to walk the walk. Socioeconomic diversity is a prime example of this: wealth and privilege is seldom discussed in a meaningful context with students, and that lack of discourse can leave entire parts of students’ identities closed off.

Socioeconomic diversity has the potential to bring an incredibly rich variety of perspectives to our community. As Hannah Weinberg put it, “Socioeconomic diversity makes us more of a melting pot and less of an echo chamber.” OES has an excellent resource in its financial aid program — we just need to get over the initial discomfort of talking about privilege long enough to tap into it.

In every interview, the last question I asked was, “What do you wish people knew about being on financial aid at OES?” If you take one thing away from this article, let it be these responses:

“It’s really hard finding out whether your parents can afford the next month of school. There’s the constant struggle of figuring out if my parents can pay for it. I feel bad for my parents — there’s regret in it.”

“Be careful what you say, even if you don’t mean it. It will hurt someone. It does affect someone, even if they’re laughing.”

“Even if there’s not a lot of socioeconomic diversity, people shouldn’t pass it over, we should still talk about it. There’s a huge divide between upper and lower classes right now, and ignoring that in a high school where we’re being taught to prepare for the real world isn’t safe.”

“I feel like there’s a certain pressure on me as a student on financial aid to try extremely hard and be really appreciative of going to a school like OES, and it’s hard when that conflicts with the feelings of being a teenager and not wanting to do my homework and things. It’s hard not feeling like you can speak up about your experiences. Staying quiet about it kind of sucks.”

“It doesn’t mean that we’re restricted- we just have to find different ways. Bringing it up would help me feel more comfortable. If people brought it up, and were fine with acknowledging, it would make me more comfortable.”

“I ask them to be more considerate when they’re talking about money and question how much of their life they take for granted.”

***

Author’s note: If you’re interested in being part of a conversation about this topic, look for the Culture Shock workshop: Money Matters: Socioeconomic Disparity in the Independent School, led by myself, Hannah Weinberg, and Robin Schauffler.

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