The Financial-Aid Rubik’s Cube

Newly Minted is a monthly series on Head Count following John Gudvangen through his first year as a financial-aid director at Wesleyan University. We’ll check in with Mr. Gudvangen as he learns the ropes of his new position and faces challenges common to his profession, as well as some unique to Wesleyan.


Over the summer, John Gudvangen has been in touch with the president of Wesleyan’s student government. They’ve talked about a number of things, including the U.S. Education Department’s new “Financial Aid Shopping Sheet” (which Wesleyan plans to send only to military veterans, at least for now) and the possibility of starting up a group for first-generation college students.

Once students are back on the campus, Mr. Gudvangen expects to talk more with them about the university’s recent shift to need-aware admissions, in which the financial need of applicants may be considered near the end of the admissions process.

Mr. Gudvangen expects Wesleyan students to use evidence, rather than just saying the new policy is bad or they disagree with it. Say students fear the policy will undermine Wesleyan’s socioeconomic diversity. The university’s staff will be able to examine data to find out whether or not it does.

The need for good information is a continuing theme in Mr. Gudvangen’s job. It’s also natural for aid offices to want to help an individual student who’s in a bind. Just recently, Mr. Gudvangen heard from one whose internship in his home country pays a good local wage—but not nearly enough to provide the $2,500 Wesleyan expects students to chip in from summer earnings. Mr. Gudvangen is sympathetic to that situation. But he still can’t consider it in a vacuum.

After all, if the aid office reduced the expected summer-earnings contribution, or changed how it looked at home equity, or made any one of many changes it might consider in its need analysis, it could soon face big budget implications.

That makes it crucial for the staff to work out how any change they make could affect the bottom line. “When we can’t model it, we can’t implement it,” Mr. Gudvangen says.

And modeling changes isn’t always straightforward, either. Not every change will apply to every student who receives aid. To complicate matters further, changes in needs analysis could also change who enrolls.

Financial-aid policy involves many moving pieces, Mr. Gudvangen says. But in the end, they all have to fit together. “It’s a little bit of a Rubik’s Cube,” he says. “If I turn it this way, I’ll get a different picture, but I’ll have to have them all line up by the end of the budget season. At least that’s what the budget people want. They want a perfectly formed Rubik’s Cube.”

Knowing what will probably happen when the university uses different knobs and levers is all the more relevant now that Wesleyan considers need in the admissions process. That has given Wesleyan more flexibility as it faces a great challenge in financial-aid policy: balancing decisions about its needs analysis—how generous to be—against the number of needy students it can help.

Despite that tension, Mr. Gudvangen reminds himself that “it’s really this office that makes it possible for lots of people to attend here who otherwise would have no opportunity to attend here.” What is more worrying, he says, is looking past the gates of his selective, privileged university to consider the opportunities available in society as a whole.

That’s why Mr. Gudvangen, like many in his profession, thinks it’s important to do broad outreach and to help as many families as possible know how to make college a real, affordable possibility.

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