Even college students awarded a full scholarship sometimes get socked with thousands of dollars in bills.
In reality, a full college scholarship does not usually cover the full cost of attendance. Most schools require a student to contribute at least a few thousand dollars, either from employment income or from a loan.
Colleges usually require a “minimum student contribution” when calculating financial aid. They want students to have some skin in the game.
… This payment is often referred to as a “minimum student contribution,” which is a flat payment typically between $1,500 and $4,000 a year. The dollar amount is usually the cheapest for freshmen and the most expensive for seniors. Some schools refer to it as a “summer earnings expectation,” saying that they expect their students to work during the summer and to contribute a certain dollar amount from that income to their education costs….
… schools are encouraged to charge students. For years, the College Board has suggested a minimum student contribution, and specified a recommended dollar amount — currently $1,800 for first-year students and $2,450 for dependent upperclassmen—for many colleges to charge….
Outside scholarships are not usually allowed to replace the student contribution.
When a student gets private scholarships—from a corporation or community group, say—some schools will actually scale back their own aid offering. In other cases, even when aid is enough to cover every penny of financial need, some schools require students to still pay a portion of the college bill out of their own pockets….
Harsh impact on low-income students who are awarded full-need financial aid
The policy is a major hardship for students who can barely earn this amount or who don’t have family to help them cover this cost. When students cannot pay, many colleges suggest they sign up for student loans.
Critics say the policy also underscores how the system is stacked against poorer students: Most colleges will accept a check from any other external source, like a student’s wealthy uncle, for this required payment, but they will not allow a private scholarship to pay this bill, even though the end result for the schools is that they still get paid the same amount. For some students who receive scholarships through the UNCF’s Gates Millennium Scholars program, these contribution requirements equal 5% to 22% of their families’ annual income, says Larry Griffith, senior vice president at the UNCF.
Low-income students may scramble to pay the required student contribution.
Beatriz Barros, a freshman at Cornell, thought her family would only be required to pay $1,400 for her college bills, which was the EFC figure the federal government had determined. But shortly before the school year began, Barros says, Cornell sent her a bill, which showed that her family would be required to pay $5,500 for the year and she would have to pay a separate $2,600 for her summer earnings expectation. Meanwhile, Barros had been awarded a scholarship from the Gates Millennium Scholars program that was large enough to cover her summer earnings expectation, but she says the school’s financial aid office declined to accept it, saying it was a required payment that she would have to make on her own. To pay for her and her family’s extra costs, Barros signed up for federal student loans, abstained from flying home for Thanksgiving, and cut back on her meal plan. “I definitely didn’t expect the bill to be that large—you hear about getting the Gates scholarship and you say, ‘Cool, I don’t have to graduate in debt.’ And then you find out you won’t get to do that and it’s a bit heartbreaking,” she says.
These students sometimes have to forego non-paid internships in order to get a paying summer job. This puts them at a disadvantage when it comes time to find a job after graduation.