Who controls financial aid? While for many families aid money literally determines whether or not their child will attend a given university, financial aid often seems arbitrary and confusing. Why is that? Well for the most part financial aid power in academic institutions is vested in one mid-level bureaucrat. A piece by Jacques Steinberg in the New York Times profiles one of these people, Sandra Oliveira of Rhode Island’s Providence College. According to the article:

Ms. Oliveira is spending this week plowing through a stack of 100 appeals from high school seniors who have been accepted for the next freshman class but who say they cannot afford to attend. Each packet contains a heartfelt plea for more aid than the college offered initially, to offset the impact of recent job losses, plunges in home values or other financial setbacks.

[F]or some families, the initial offer, however generous, will not go far enough. Enter Ms. Oliveira, 46, who is equal parts banker, therapist and fairy godmother, and who has the discretion to increase an offer by several thousand dollars a year if she deems the family’s circumstances dire enough.

For families the financial aid package looks like a bizarre combination of the federal income tax and the Tri-State Lottery. Using a pseudo-scientific combination of math and a student’s attractiveness to a given college, the college awards students what often seems to be an odd amount (and distribution) of money. The article is a very interesting look at the process of weighing a family’s financial need against a college’s resources.

Many have have called for reform. The article provides a good look at the logic and methods that determine the current system.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer