Teighe Thorsen spent much of her childhood in Singapore before her family moved back to the United States. When it came time for her to start looking at colleges, she looked for institutions with “international clout.”
“I like to think of myself as a worldly person,” she said. “I wanted to be around like-minded people.”
American University was a natural fit. She was admitted, excited about coming to Washington, and upon arrival immediately confronted with the $20,000 question: how to pay for her education.
“My parents were struck hard by the economic downturn,” said Thorsen, SOC/ BA ’11. “Partly through college [my father] lost his job. I went into the financial aid office to find a way to pay for my next semester.”
Thorsen’s circumstances may have been extraordinary, but the assistance she received from the Office of Financial Aid was not. Nearly 80 percent of this year’s freshman class received some form of financial aid, as do 67 percent of all students on campus.
Shekinatu Fasancy is in that majority. A senior majoring in law and society, she applied to AU from a high school in Baltimore where college is a pipe dream for many.
“I come from a low-income family, and private loans weren’t an option for me,” she said. “I didn’t want money to be a barrier, I just wanted to get a degree, so I applied to AU. I wasn’t going to be intimidated.”
She’ll graduate in May thanks to her smarts, hard work—and a package of scholarships (she received the Shaskan Family Endowed Scholarship) grants, and federal loans assembled for her by the Office of Financial Aid.
“I knew [aid] was out there, but I didn’t know how it worked,” she said. “They helped me learn how to apply. They’re very open to coming up with solutions.”
“Our role is to try to help students who want to come here find resources to make it affordable,” said Brian Lee Sang, director of financial aid. “We want to help them make the best decision for their family as it relates to paying for school.”
That process begins before a prospective student even has applied. Each year the office sends out a letter to the roughly 60,000 students in AU’s inquiry pool letting them know of the university’s goal to make an AU education attainable.
“I think sometimes students look at a sticker price and think, ‘There’s no way I can attend,’” Lee Sang said. “That’s not the way AU works in terms of its commitment to helping students.”
Students next fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The government uses it to calculate what it believes is a family’s ability is to pay for college—its contribution number.
“The federal government does not look at consumer debts when determining that number,” Lee Sang said. “They look at your current assets and income.”
AU then collects its own financial data from applicants, and uses along with the FAFSA to determine each student’s need (cost of attendance minus family contribution). The university tries to bridge that gap through financial aid packages.
“In some cases it’s a federal loan, in some it’s a grant, a merit award, work-study,” Lee Sang said. “AU last year met 98 percent of all its incoming freshman students’ demonstrated need.”
It did so, in part, by allocating about $70 million to undergraduates in the form of grants (that don’t have to be paid back), Lee Sang said.
Despite AU’s contributions, many parents and students are still left with need, which can be met through a federal Parent Plus loan or loan from a private lender.
“Many parents decide to let the student take out an alternative private loan,” Lee Sang said. “They don’t have to repay until they graduate, they can establish some credit, and the parents can hold onto their cash.”
This happens across the country, which is a large part of the reason 65 percent of all graduating seniors at private four-year colleges will have borrowed loans. At AU, that number is 56 percent.
“We really are committed to supporting the students who are here,” said Sharon Alston, vice provost for undergraduate enrollment. “To the extent that it is reasonable, we don’t want cost to be a barrier.”
Somewhat remarkably, it wasn’t for Thorsen. She received the Michael R. Forman and Bonnie Brae Forman Endowed Scholarship through SOC, and was able to combine loans and grants to graduate. She now has an internship in film postproduction at the firm Hillmann and Carr, and teaches graphic design at Boston University’s Center for Digital Imaging Arts. She’s also a new student in SOC’s MFA in Film and Electronic Media program, for which she received a graduate merit award and stipend. This semester she’ll only have to fork out a few hundred dollars.
“My entire higher education has been resting on the head of a needle that’s been supported by the financial aid department,” she said. “They worked their buns off trying to find ways for me to stay in school. Sometimes the answer is ‘no,’ but they try really hard to find a way to say ‘yes.’”