The Colby Mutual Aid Fund started out as a way to take the burden off of low-income students to pay for things like travel and school supplies, but since the start of the semester, they have taken up the cause of covering the Colby-required health care costs that they say are not being covered in financial aid packages as robustly as in the past.
Members of the fund met in August with College administrators—Dean of the College Karlene Burrell-McRae `94, Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Tayo Clybrun, and Director of Student Financial Services Cynthia Wells—to discuss their concerns about health care costs.
The College requires all students to be covered by a healthcare plan. Students can prove that they have their own coverage or are required to opt into Colby’s plan.
The College’s plan costs $1,960 this academic year. In a Civil Discourse post on Aug.August 27, Micaela Duran, a member of the Fund’s board wrote that this price disproportionately affects the students that the Fund seeks to support: first generation to college and low- income students, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and queer students.
The administrators wrote in a joint statement to the The Colby Echo that they appreciated hearing from students about the issue and that it is something they feel they deal with every year, including this year, by “cover[ing] the cost of health insurance for lower-income students.”
“We did that again this year,” they said, “increasing the number of students to whom we are offering insurance assistance by extending support to middle income families –the College partially or fully assisted under 100 students last year, and as of September 21, we have assisted 200 this year.”
The students from the Fund said that after their meeting, they felt like they were being placated. They also shared that, from the perspective of the students they support through their fundraising efforts, the amount covered was not enough.
Duran shared that 17 out of the 32 students who applied for aid from the Fund had requested emergency support to cover the costs of student health insurance.
Stella Gonzalez `22 said that Colby should “provide basic healthcare for all students.” She added that even if the College cannot do so, they should be more transparent and prompt in letting students know how much they will owe.
“If they couldn’t have covered all of it they should have let people know weeks before at the very least. And then they could’ve elected to do a remote option possibly. But even then, they should’ve covered for all low income students,” Gonzalezshe said.
Clyburn, Burrell-McRae, and Wells wrote that one of the main things they took from the conversation with the members of the Fund was that they need to improve the way the financial aid process operates in relation to healthcare.
“We realized it would have been helpful, given the significant changes this summer as a result of COVID-19, to be more proactive about reaching out to students about our timing and details of the insurance plan,” they said.
Ashley Ketchum `22 said that the College should make the process “a whole lot easier.” She shared that the College was planning to waive its regular late fees for tuition but did not communicate that intention to students, who were then worried about meeting the tuition deadline.
She also shared that she was told by administrators that “it’s the responsibility of the student to know if they don’t have the right forms turned in.” Ketchum said that this places a burden on low- income students “because it’s very hard to know where to go and who to talk to and what to ask for.”
The administrators said that COVID-19 affected their process of putting together financial aid packages in a few ways. Because students were given the option to study remotely, they needed to know everyone’s decisions about being on campus or not before allocating aid.
This is relevant specifically to students’ health care costs because if a student is staying home in a state other than Maine, they may have in-state coverage which would allow them to opt out of Colby’s health care plan.
Students were also given time in July to tell the College if they were planning to take classes for the semester or to take a leave of absence.
“When these unknowns exist into the summer months, it can delay financial aid decisions, as staff need to give adequate time to these applications,” the administrators said.
The administrators cited some actions that the College took to support low-income students throughout the pandemic. When the College moved to remote learning in March, student workers were paid for the hours they would have worked the rest of the semester.
They said they took this step because “we knew that finding employment at home or elsewhere would have been incredibly challenging.”
As well, students whose financial aid packages include summer earnings expectations were relieved of that requirement and the College increased the amount of money they granted to the student for financial aid in its place.
The administrators also said that, in June, the College “facilitated grants to more than 450 students of up to $1,200 for emergency relief for students with eligible expenses.”
All together, according to the administrators, the students eligible for these three programs and financial aid for health insurance “will have received direct payments or savings of more than $5,000.”
They said that apart from these specific pandemic-related efforts, an independent analysis of financial aid programs around the country showed Colby’s to be “the fourth most generous in the nation.”
Gonzalez said that, while Colby brands itself as a school that meets 100% of its students financial need, the process for low- income students to get their financial aid is arduous.
“When it comes down to it and I do need to pay my contribution or I need to find out how much that contribution is, they don’t let me know,” she said. “And it’s really frustrating. You have to jump through hoops to pay for your education here.”
~ Sonia Lachter `22