Maureen McRae Goldberg of Occidental College Answers 8 Questions

February is Financial Aid Awareness month. As students and families research financial aid, fill out the FAFSA, and assess their options this month, we asked Occidental College's Director of Financial Aid Maureen McRae Goldberg "5 Questions." And she graciously answered eight for us.

Occidental College is a private liberal arts school located in the oak and eucalyptus covered hills of Los Angeles' Eagle Rock neighborhood. Designed by Rose Bowl architect Myron Hunt, the campus' stucco and red tile roofed Spanish Colonial architecture covers 120 acres. No surprise then that Occidental has been the setting for more than 80 movies and television shows -- from the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers to Star Trek III, as well as Glee, Parenthood and Arrested Development. It has also been a feature film stand-in for the real-life college campuses of Stanford and Princeton.

Occidental -- affectionately called "Oxy" -- was founded in 1887 and tuition the year that they opened the doors was $50. That same year, a Kansas prohibitionist named Harvey Wilcox purchased a ranch just west of Los Angeles and named it Hollywood. Today, the campus is home to more than 2100 students from 43 states and 25 other countries.

Students can select from more than 31 majors, including seven interdisciplinary programs. Average class size is nineteen students and the school boasts a student faculty ratio of 10 to 1. Oxy also has exchange or joint degree programs with the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Art Center College of Design, Columbia University, and Keck Graduate Institute.

When they're not in the classroom, students can choose from more than 100 student clubs and organizations -- from the Chinese Culture Club or La Raza to campus radio station KOXY and student government. Students may raise funds for anti-hunger causes through Challah for Hunger, take part in the 65-year-old tradition of Dance Production, or produce webisodes for CatAList, the college entertainment video network. In addition, there is an active Greek life on campus, home to four sororities and five fraternities. And like most 125-year-old institutions, Oxy has its share of rituals -- and hijinks -- from Quadsitting to getting tossed into Lucille Gilman Memorial Fountain on your birthday (much easier to take in southern California).

The Occidental Tigers compete in the NCAA Division III Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, fielding ten men's and eleven women's teams including baseball, golf, water polo, swimming and diving, and volleyball. An active intramural program includes flag football, team tennis and doubles volleyball. Or students can participate in a club sport like Ultimate Frisbee, men's lacrosse or Dance Team. At the new fitness center, there are classes in yoga, hip hop, Zumba, and spinning, as well as circuit training, cardio tennis and boot camp.

Prominent alumni include Warner Music CEO Stephen Cooper, actor Ben Affleck, Monty Python member Terry Gilliam, National Medal of Science winner Brent Dalrymple, politician Jack Kemp, writer M.F.K. Fisher, and our own Robin Mamlet, former dean of admission at Stanford University and coauthor of College Admission: From Application to Acceptance Step by Step. Oh, and Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States, attended Oxy from 1979 to 1981.

Please join Occidental's Director of Financial Aid Maureen McRae Goldberg to learn more about how financial aid works at Oxy, why colleges offer different amounts of aid and exactly how much discretion financial aid officers have…

 

How does financial aid work at Occidental College?

We are fortunate to be able to meet the full demonstrated need of all our enrolled students.  This means, if admitted, using the FAFSA and CSS Profile, Oxy will create a package, in a combination of work, loans, grants and scholarships, which meets your full demonstrated need.  For example, if you need $35,000, you would receive an award that might look like this:  $3,100 work, $5,700 in subsidized student loans and $26,200 in a need-based scholarship.  If you “needed” more, you would be offered the same loan and work but more scholarship; if you “needed” less, you would be offered the same loan and work but be offered less scholarship.  The smallest need-based scholarship we offer is $10,000.

 

What is the biggest mistake families make with regard to financial aid when applying to college?

Families make a lot of assumptions based on what they hear, or on urban legends passed down by friends and families.  But the world of financial aid is constantly changing.  What was true 10 years ago is not necessarily true today, even what was true last year, isn’t necessarily true today.  It is important to read the current information available on the financial aid web pages of the colleges to which the student has applied.  That is the one source of correct and concrete information. 

 

If there was one thing you could tell students and families about financial aid, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to apply or ask questions. When I give workshops I tell families if they can’t write a check for the full cost of one year, then they should apply for financial aid.  And once they apply and receive an award letter, they need to evaluate that again. With the award that college has given them, can they afford the remaining cost? If the answer is yes, they are set! If the answer is no, they need to write a letter to every aid office where their child was admitted, letting them know why they won’t be able to send their kid to college on that offer.  They should be courteous and be ready to provide documentation, but if a family doesn’t do this, they will never know if more was available.  The worst thing that the aid office can say is no.  So there really isn’t anything to lose. 

 

Why do different colleges offer different amounts of financial aid?

Just like every family has a unique set of finances, so does every college.  Some offer a lot of institutional aid that they can award on top of federal and state awards and some don’t.  Some colleges award based only on need, while others blend need and merit.  Just as every school has a different set of academic strengths that attract a student, every college has a different set of priorities when awarding need-based or merit aid.

 

To what extent do financial aid offices have discretion and to what extent are they bound by formulas?

All aid offices have the ability to change the inputs to the formulas based on their own professional judgment.  We are all bound by certain regulations of course, but there is discretion to assist a family differently than the raw numbers might show.  However, just because an aid administrator can make an adjustment it does not mean they will.  Many other factors come into play.  The first being, if this change is made, is there more money available to award the student?  One school may radically change the expected family contribution based on documentation provided by the family and increase grants or scholarships because they have the budget to do so.  But another college might not have need-based aid as a priority, or might not have enough money to make the change to the EFC have any meaning.

 

Can you explain "special circumstances" and offer some examples

I like to think of the financial aid applications as putting uniquely shaped families into square government boxes.  The forms really are trying to boil a family down to their Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and award accordingly.  Special Circumstances is what allows an aid administrator to allow the unique circumstances of a family to be reflected in the EFC.  In general, special circumstances should be things that are necessary to the family but not adequately reflected in the questions on the financial aid applications.  This means no yacht payments, no second homes, no required vacations, etc. etc.  What it does mean is high out of pocket medical expenses, caring for a disabled dependent, taking into account changes brought about by marriage or divorce.  Most families are not square and that government box doesn’t fit them very well, if at all, so every family needs to explain these financial pressures to an aid office to see how that circumstance can be taken into account.

 

How does someone learn to be a financial aid officer?

Almost all the aid folks I know learned it from the ground up.  They started as work study students at their own alma maters and moved up the responsibility chain as their skills progressed.  What is interesting about people who make financial aid their career is that they tend not to be finance people.  Not a lot of accounting, business or econ majors in our ranks, more social sciences and humanities.  Financial aid is a social justice field. We are in the business of helping families who could not otherwise pay for college, get the money they need to better their lives.  At every graduation I attend, I hear the names of students I’ve helped.  It is very satisfying knowing that you helped that one, and that one, and that one!

 

What is your favorite thing about Occidental College?

Bar none it is the people.  We have dedicated faculty, administrators and staff that truly care about Oxy and the students we serve.  Working at a liberal arts college and seeing students enter with dreams and exit with plans is truly inspiring.  I can’t see myself working anywhere else than in Higher Ed.

 

 

 

 

 

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