Stuck in limbo: Low income Pomona students frustrated by uncertainty over textbook aid

Person in yellow t-shirt holding a stack of textbooks.
Photo Illustration: Students at Pomona College have found resources for affording textbooks difficult to navigate. (Luba Masliy • The Student Life)

The myriad overlapping programs Pomona College’s Financial Aid and Dean of Students offices have implemented to help students afford textbooks — including emergency grants, bookstore vouchers, financial aid refunds and loans — have left many students unclear if and how they can receive financial support for academic materials.  

The Pomona 2018-2019 financial aid handbook advises students to “arrive on campus with $500 for books, even if you have requested a loan or have outside scholarship assistance.” But that can pose a heavy burden for some students.

This semester, the Office of Financial Aid offered a group of students the option to charge the cost of books and supplies from Huntley Bookstore to their student accounts, according to Dean of Students Avis Hinkson.

The pilot program — which includes about 450 students, according to Pomona Director of Financial Aid Robin Thompson — is intended to allow students to secure textbooks and other materials at the beginning of the semester without immediately having to pay out-of-pocket or receive an emergency grant from the Dean of Students Office, officials said.

The college makes emergency grants, usually up to $500, available to students on financial aid to cover certain academic and non-academic expenses “when other funding is unavailable.”

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The new program is intended to make it easier to for students to buy books “without having to wait for refunds or seek emergency grants,” Dean of Students Avis Hinkson said in an email. Any student on financial aid may ask their counselor to join the program.

If students’ financial aid packages, outside scholarships and student loans exceed their cost of attendance, they can apply the excess funds to pay for their textbooks, Thompson said.

But for those who don’t have a financial aid surplus, the program will essentially function as a loan, allowing them to defer payment of the full cost of textbooks until they earn enough money to pay for them.

“Students on financial aid can earn up to $2,800 working on campus,” Thompson said. ”These student employment funds are another resource for students to earn pocket money to assist with those other educational costs, such as books.”

Costs incurred at Huntley in September will be due for payment Nov. 1, Thompson said. The Pomona tuition agreement stipulates a $25 per month late payment fee for any outstanding student account balances.

“Doing the math, the late fee is actually a greater interest rate than a credit card,” said Karla Ortiz PO ’20, the co-president of Pomona College FLI Scholars, a community for first-generation and/or low-income students.

Students said postponing their book costs without any additional aid to subsidize them would just extend a significant stressor further into the semester.

“I guess it’s better than paying up front, but it’s still going to present a financial burden,” Virgil Munyemana PO ’22, a FLI mentor, said. “You’re already worrying about money while you’re here, and now you have to worry about paying more bills on top of already having to work to pay for whatever costs you have during the year.”

Some students, though, have received additional aid. 

A program in place since fall 2016 offers some first-years “who meet certain financial criteria” in the FLI Scholars program one-time $500 start-up grants during first semester aiding their transition to Pomona, according to Hinkson. The grants can be used for textbooks or personal expenses as the student sees fit.

In spring 2019, for the first time, the Dean of Students office issued first-year students who had received start-up grants in the fall additional $500 vouchers for use at the Huntley Bookstore, according to an email from Hinkson. FLI Scholars student leaders had presented the idea of providing book vouchers several semesters earlier, according to Ortiz.

Students in the Questbridge Match program — another program for first generation, low-income students — had received recurring $500 book grants separately, but those grants ended with the class of 2020, Ortiz said.

Student leaders are unsure if the second-semester book vouchers will continue for future first-year classes, including the class of 2023, Ortiz said.

Students said seeing some vouchers offered in the absence of more consistent aid shows a lack of administrative commitment to accommodating all students.

“[The vouchers set] a precedent that the college is going to support you,” Munyemana said. “To not follow up on that sends mixed messages to people that are low-income in a space that wasn’t meant for them.”

This semester, many FLI students, wary of the new program that would potentially involve late fees, attempted to secure emergency grants from the Dean of Students Office to fund their textbook purchases. But students said their requests have been continuously denied, according to Ortiz.

Other students claimed obtaining emergency grants for academic materials has become more difficult in recent years.

Daniel Garcia PO ’21 said he easily received emergency grant funding for textbooks during his first year. But last year, when he attempted to request one, Dean of Students Office staff told him the program was being phased out. 

“‘This isn’t a thing anymore,’ is what I was told,” he said.

Hinkson denied her office has eliminated grants.

“Students are still able to apply for emergency grant funds for books and supplies,” Hinkson said. “We have approved a number of these grant requests based on the individual circumstances these students were facing and their lack of access to other resources.”

A 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics report found college textbook prices have increased by 88 percent since 2006.

Because of these rising costs, students have sometimes been forced to choose courses based on the cost of materials required to take them. But in some cases, they can be left with few options.

“My most expensive textbook was a required class for my major, and the department didn’t offer any real assistance,” Garcia said. “There was no way around it, and I had to pick up extra shifts and do what I had to do to pay for the textbook. But in other cases, if the textbook was over $100 and I didn’t have access in the library, I would pick a different class.”

Other 5Cs are working to help students afford academic materials in various ways. 

Pitzer College and Claremont McKenna College offer free textbook rental services through the Dean of Students Office and CARE Center, respectively. CMC also established the Kravis Opportunity Fund last year, which dispenses $2,000 transition grants to incoming students with substantial financial need.

Scripps offered up to $200 in textbook grants through the Scripps Associated Students Book Fund as recently as fall 2017, according to a form on the Scripps website. 

But it’s unclear if the Book Fund is still active. Links to the Book Fund’s webpage are broken, and its former coordinator, Daniela Canas Baena, left Scripps last June, according to her LinkedIn profile. A spokesperson for Scripps did not provide comment before press time.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that students in the QuestBridge Match program continue to receive recurring $500 book grants through a separate program. The article has been updated to reflect that program ended with the class of 2020. TSL regrets this error.

 

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