Saint Mary’s community discusses financial cost of education at the College
Editor’s note: This is the final part in a series exploring the experiences of low socioeconomic students at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s.
The financial burden of a private school education is something students often spend many hours thinking about, and the students at Saint Mary’s are no different.
Therese Pingel said she eagerly began her first year at Saint Mary’s in the fall of 2016, ready to take advantage of all the opportunities the College afforded. However, she soon came to realize how expensive it is to be a Belle.
“I liked the idea of the Saint Mary’s community,” she said. “I loved the idea of a women-focused education, so that was the main draw for Saint Mary’s. But I think I just started to feel like the amount of money that I was paying and the sacrifices my family was making didn’t balance out. I didn’t really feel like I was getting this deeper sense of fulfillment out of the Saint Mary’s experience.”
Pingel, who transferred to Indiana University South Bend (IUSB) in 2017, said she initially did not realize how much of a financial investment Saint Mary’s was until the bills began piling up and she had to take out a $5,000 loan just to support herself at the College.
“Growing up in South Bend, a lot of people aren’t really aware of how expensive Saint Mary’s is because the idea is that Saint Mary’s is the poor woman’s Notre Dame,” she said. “People don’t really think about Saint Mary’s as a financial investment like they do Notre Dame.”
Saint Mary’s Associate Dean of Advising Susan Vanek said the College works hard to find solutions for students who are financially struggling to finish their degree.
“At the College and in Academic Affairs, we are aware and sensitive to the needs of students who face financial challenges and do what we can to find solutions to help students finish their degree at Saint Mary’s,” she said.
Madison Sparks, a Saint Mary’s sophomore, said she will also be transferring to IUSB next year because the tuition is rising so exponentially that she and her family can hardly keep up.
“My stepdad works at Notre Dame, so we get their tuition remission, and that’s the only way I can afford to be here, actually, because they’re covering all of my tuition,” she said. “And they, [associate dean for advising Susan] Vanek especially, told me that it was impossible for me to finish my degree before that money ran out because I only have three semesters left.”
Vanek said Academic Affairs “has no control over and cannot change policies” for students in tuition remission programs, which grant monetary assistance based on eligibility factors outside of financial need.
“If a student says that she only has three semesters of tuition remission remaining and if her major requirements are sequenced such that she cannot finish within three semesters, I have to be honest with her so she has time to make an informed decision and, when possible, I suggest other majors she could finish within the time limitation of her tuition remission,” Vanek said.
Saint Mary’s offers an encouraging amount of aid to students for their freshman year, Pingel said, but that money soon begins to disappear as the years wear on.
“Saint Mary’s kind of has this reputation going that they’ll give you money your freshman year, then they’ll pull the rug right out from under you and all of a sudden you don’t have as much money as you thought you did,” she said.
Sophomore Sophia McDevitt said she felt the College misled her into believing that merit scholarships would reflect the rising rates of tuition.
“They don’t tell you that merit scholarships don’t increase with tuition when tuition increases,” she said. “And they don’t tell you that if you get a merit scholarship for a certain GPA you got in high school, if you do better in college, it doesn’t go up.”
Although Pingel did not want to leave Saint Mary’s, she said the administration was not helpful in finding her viable economic solutions.
“I didn’t experience a ton of proactive behavior from the administration as I was to trying to figure out how to balance these things,” she said. “When I was trying to figure out if I could make Saint Mary’s work financially, it was a long discernment process. I spent a lot of time talking to someone from the administrative office, and she warned me, because I was trying to think if it would be doable if I moved off campus, that financial aid will often readjust if you are not living on campus. So what do I do here? You’re putting me in a position where I’m trying to fit for my education and you’re not giving me anything.”
In light of these complaints, Vanek said Academic Affairs has a variety of solutions and accommodations it tries to offer to applicable students.
“Because we are a small college, we are able to work closely with each student to try and meet her individual needs,” she said. “One example of this personal attention is our allowing students with financial need to take courses at other less expensive colleges during the summer or later to finish their degree requirements. We also work closely with faculty members to ask for special accommodations for a student who could benefit from some flexibility.”
Despite these programs, Sparks said she has similar feelings about the administration’s indifference to her financial circumstances.
“A major deciding factor for me was that Saint Mary’s didn’t sell it,” she said. “I felt like they weren’t really willing to try to put together a plan, even if it meant taking classes at IUSB over the summer and transferring them in.”
Campus Ministry director Regina Wilson said that in the past she witnessed the College provide assistance to students with financial need.
“The College has access to help students, has access to funds to help students when we know that there’s need and the College has done that many times in my years here,” she said.
One such fund is the Student Emergency Fund, a small fund that helps students with a personal emergency not related to paying their bills. The fund has been managed by vice president of student affairs Karen Johnson since she came to Saint Mary’s in 2006.
“Once I get all the information, I am in contact with the vice president for enrollment management to ensure that there really is a need,” Johnson said in an email. “ … This fund is not to supplement financial aid. It is to help with costs that are unexpected. For instance, a plane ticket to get home in an emergency, a book that wasn’t on the initial list, a fee for a test.”
Though Johnson said she encourages students to reach out if they are in need of assistance, there are still limits to what assistance the College can provide.
“The vice president for mission, the vice president for enrollment management, the director of residence life and the director of multicultural services and I work together as a team when we find out about a student in need,” Johnson said. “There are, however, limitations to what we can do and how much financial aid we can offer.”
An additional resource introduced this past school year is a scholarship for Senior Week tickets. Senior Katherine Ryan, Student Government Association (SGA) treasurer, said SGA decided to give ten seniors the opportunity to attend Senior Week for free. The chosen students were selected by the Office of Multicultural Services and Financial Aid to keep interested students anonymous, Ryan said.
“Just having [Senior Week] is going to be such a fun memory to have leading up to graduation,” she said. “I would hate to know that a student didn’t get to have that. I feel like if money were to hinder someone it would be extremely unfortunate, and so by offering this I think it gives every student the chance to have that last sense of bonding with the Saint Mary’s community.”
Pingel said she still keeps in touch with the Belles she met during her year at Saint Mary’s, and, during a recent trip to campus, she got her first full experience of the new Angela Athletic Facility.
“I’ve been on campus a couple times this year but this is the first time that I’ve seen the new Angela [Athletic Facility] building,” she said. “It’s my understanding that that building was funded entirely by alumnae donations, so that makes me think, ‘Where is the rest of the money going? Where is the tuition being distributed?’”
Pingel said she feels the College could benefit from becoming more transparent about its finances.
“Show me what you’re doing with all the tuition money,” she said. “I don’t see the development of Saint Mary’s happening. I don’t see the development of new programs coming up. I don’t see the transparency that I think Saint Mary’s women deserve.”
As for the future, Pingel said she doubts any sort of higher education will become more affordable.
“I actually have a lot of people in my life who are Saint Mary’s alumnae who have graduated 10 years ago or more [and] who are still paying off their loans,” Pingel said. “And that’s normal — I would say most people experience that. But at the same time, tuition was a lot cheaper then, so what is it going to be like as costs keep inflating?”
In spite of the cost of a college education, the demographics of higher education are changing. Justice Studies professor Andrew Pierce said higher education has seen a recent influx of those of a low socioeconomic status, who are now considered the new majority.
“I do know that the demographics in higher education are changing, and we’re seeing more students from low-income families, first-generation students, older working students and students of color on university and college campuses,” he said. “Some scholars of higher education have begun referring to these students together as ‘new majority’ students.”
Vanek said the Saint Mary’s administration is aware of the challenges faced by low-income students and the administration is committed to assisting those students.
“We value all our students, but we are especially committed to helping our students who face serious financial challenges,” she said.
Wilson said she is hopeful for the future and feels that everyone in the campus community should do their part in allowing Belles to thrive.
“Whether we reach all the students who actually have need, we’re trying to get better,” she said. “A lot of reaching out is not only responding to [a student’s] physical needs or their financial needs, but just as a person in this community. Feeling welcomed and feeling that you’re a part of the community. When you are struggling with [financial problems], you can feel outside of it. You see a lot of students enjoying things, going out, doing things, and you can’t do that maybe because you don’t have the financial resources. It affects your ability to feel like part of the community. You know, the College isn’t just administrators. It’s also the students.”