The Failures of Questbridge at Tufts

In high school, Dan* dreamed of attending an elite four-year college, but never thought it would be possible. He graduated from his school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program in the top 4 percent of his class, but knew it would be difficult for his family to afford his higher education.

Dan’s family earns less than $60,000 a year and has a total of four children. His mother is currently going to school on the side, studying social work and education. These factors made earning a degree from a private university like Tufts seem out of the question.

But when Dan was awarded a National College Match scholarship through QuestBridge, a program designed to help low-income students attend college, things started looking up. QuestBridge connects these high achieving students (“match scholars”) with partner colleges. These colleges then provide students with four-year scholarships. Tufts has been a partner school for three years, and the class of 2017 will graduate the first class of QuestBridge scholars.

To applicants, QuestBridge seems to be a nearly perfect program: it connects incredibly smart students with top universities, it walks the students through the application process each step of the way, and it guarantees match recipients full scholarships for their entire four years in college.

Now a junior, Dan arrived at Tufts thinking that he had earned a “full ride,” where all of his expenses at Tufts would be covered by the university. But his QuestBridge scholarship has not provided the amount of money that he expected. “The way the scholarship was broken down, it seemed like there was so much in it—food, books, travel, room and board, and a small amount of personal money,” he said. But his experience was very different. “That’s the way the application looks, and that’s not what happened.”

Match scholars like Dan often come to Tufts thinking that all of their expenses will be covered. But books, travel, and personal expenses are not covered in Tufts’ match scholarship the way that the students anticipate. Many QuestBridge match scholars believe that Tufts is denying them money that they understood to be a part of their scholarship. The match scholars also do not feel adequately supported by Tufts, do not think that the Tufts financial aid office is equipped to handle their questions, and feel that they lack a centralized QuestBridge community. The Tufts Financial Aid Office believes that they are giving QuestBridge students their four-year scholarships and support they need. And QuestBridge itself is completely out of the picture—once the students are admitted to college, QuestBridge’s role formally ends.

Dean Robert Mack, an academic advisor and the QuestBridge liaison at Tufts, said that Tufts stays away from the language of “full ride” for a reason. “There are also a lot of other expenses relating to college that are not part of the ‘need’,” he said. “Need” includes tuition, room and board, fees, and health insurance. Dean Mack explained that there is a small amount of money built in for students’ extra expenses (delineated as “personal” expenses on the QuestBridge site), but it’s not a realistic amount for the whole academic year.

Yet, each QuestBridge scholar that was interviewed used the language “full ride” when their describing their financial aid package..

Dean Mack said that financial aid is “an area where students are confused and rightfully confused. It’s a lot of complicated information that’s not really accessible or really available.” There is a special “scholarship terms” glossary on the QuestBridge website, a testament to the confusing language that is used in an average financial aid breakdown. Though, yes, the information is all there, that doesn’t mean it’s being conveyed effectively.

Successful communication requires not only that the message is clear, but that the other person fully understands that message. And many students in the QuestBridge program at Tufts do not understand the messages coming from QuestBridge or Tufts.

The current junior class of QuestBridge students had a difficult experience coming to Tufts. As the first class of match scholars, many were unclear what steps they needed to take upon arrival. “We were like the guinea pigs,” says a junior match scholar.

Patricia Reilly, Tufts’ director of financial aid, admitted that her team was not completely equipped to handle the first class of QuestBridge scholars. “The first year, students got here and had concerns but didn’t know who to talk to or didn’t think it was appropriate to come to someone,” she said. Reilly also noted that students were confused about what their financial aid package actually covered.

Two years after the first class of QuestBridge students was admitted, Reilly said that a lot has changed. “We’ve tried to be fairly deliberate in making sure that the students know that there are people here whose job it is to help…we’ve been much more proactive in trying to offer services,” she said.

In an effort to be completely transparent with the students, Reilly and her team created a letter that is mailed to each incoming match scholar detailing the breakdown of their financial aid each year. This includes explanations about what the student is responsible for—there is a $2,000 work-study component and a summer work contribution that each student must earn annually. Students receive this letter in March before they arrive at Tufts. Reilly said that she recently shared the letter with the current QuestBridge students enrolled at Tufts as well.

Students are responsible for earning $1,300 the summer before their freshman year, $1,400 before sophomore year, $1,500 before junior year, and $1,600 before senior year. “We assume that the older you are, the more likely you are to get a better paying job… In general, student earnings go up as they get older,” Reilly said.

QuestBridge program manager Ziyan Chu explained that QuestBridge itself makes a point to be clear with match scholars about their schools’ financial aid packages. “All students that are matched are required to attend a webinar and we really dig deep in the financial aid packages, making sure that they understand every line of their financial aid offer,” she said.

Despite the letter, explanations, and webinar, many students remain confused due to the lack of support at Tufts.

“I feel like we don’t have enough information specifically about financial stuff. If we miss a deadline, we’re screwed,” said a freshman match scholar. She didn’t receive the financial aid office’s letter. “When I first got matched, I got an email from someone, but I didn’t get any more information after that,” she said.

“We’re treated like every other student which is great in some ways, but we don’t know most information, like when taxes are due or something,” she said. “I still don’t know when things are due.”

A common complaint is that students aren’t sure how their financial aid breakdown works—what their grant money, work-study, and summer contribution money is expected to go towards. A freshman match scholar explained that she had trouble budgeting for her year. “It’s hard to break down the money,” she said. It’s challenging to know what to save money for without understanding where that money is expected to go.

A junior match scholar stated that her class didn’t even get the letter Reilly mentioned. “There needs to be more communication with financial aid, and I get there are so many students we need to take care of, but it sucks for the juniors. We never got that letter, we never were told up front, and it really makes us skeptical about the department,” she said.

She also noted that the expectations for summer work contributions were hazy at best. “There is no information about the summer work money on the Tufts financial aid website. Tufts has a hard time being transparent about it,” she said. “The information isn’t there that I’m expected to pay $1,300. If the incoming class knows that, that’s great, but none of us knew that.” When I showed her the detailed financial breakdown that is on the QuestBridge website, she was frustrated, explaining she had not been sent this information. “If I knew that I needed to work in the summer I would have done it alongside of my internship,” she said.

Another junior match scholar explained that summer work contributions can often be unrealistic to expect due to QuestBridge students’ financial situations. “It’s hard to expect students to save the money they make over the summer to their tuition,” she said. Giving money to parents or to pay rent is obligatory for many students. This itself is a barrier for the match scholars—many low-income students cannot afford to save all of this money for the following school year, not only in the case of QuestBridge.

Some even feel cheated by the Tufts financial aid system. “Tufts claimed to give me a full scholarship, but I pay more and more each year,” said the junior match scholar. Clearly the breakdown of expenses—and incremental increases each year—isn’t being communicated clearly to the students. Another junior match scholar was harsher. “Tufts advertises very falsely—online it says you’ll be given a travel allowance, assistance with books, and health insurance. But when I came here, I didn’t get any of that,” he said.

A third junior match scholar echoed that he felt deceived. He explained that his books and travel budget was not factored into the Tufts grant, which is how he understood it would work. “I hate coming to a school that lied to me,” he said.

Match scholars do not feel that the expectations regarding student loans are clear either. “The way they present it is that you won’t have to take out loans while you’re at college,” said a match scholar. Personally, she has not taken out any loans, but knows other match scholars who have had to, in order to pay for books and other expenses at the beginning of the semester.

Reilly explained how the finances break down with regard to books and transportation costs, admitting that sometimes loans are necessary. “Textbooks and travel are typically the responsibility of the student. [Freshman] QuestBridge scholars have a summer earnings contribution of $1,300, which means we typically expect them to cover most of their travel expenses and book expenses,” she said. Already the summer earnings are imperative, and many students are unaware of this piece of the equation. Reilly also stated that work-study money should be used to help students cover the cost of books. “We assume they’ll use that money—which is about $1,000 a semester if they choose to work—to help with travel expenses and book expenses,” she said. The summer work contribution is not for tuition—it’s for books, travel, and other personal up-front costs. Students are expected to earn this money with the assumption that it will be used in these areas. Technically, the program is covering book costs, but only by requiring students to work and use their earnings in a directed manner.

If a student does not contribute summer earnings or work-study, Reilly said that the financial aid office “would absolutely want them to come to us and we would steer them to a federally subsidized student loan.” When told that some match scholars have already taken out loans with the financial aid office, Reilly replied, “Great.”

Reilly explained this scenario casually, as if it was completely normal, but students feel forced into debt when they expected to graduate loan-free. Though Tufts loans are less expensive than some private bank loans because they do not collect interest, match scholars can feel disillusioned when they have to take out a loan on what they understood as a full scholarship.

One junior match scholar explained that he was shocked to have to take out loans for the first time this year. “Tufts itself says on its website that if your parents make under $60,000 you should graduate without loans,” he said. Reilly verified that this statement is true. Because his family earns under this amount, he was disappointed when he realized that taking out a loan was his only option. The financial aid office isn’t exactly lying—if a student does not have the summer earnings and work-study pieces of the puzzle, Tufts isn’t obligated to cover these costs. But to a student who didn’t quite earn enough over the summer this is not only disappointing, it can be infuriating.

Chu explained that QuestBridge tries to be as clear about summer earnings as possible in order to prevent the need for students to take out loans. “A lot of costs for college are up-front. We really emphasize on our webinar that for the summer contribution you should be looking for the job in the summer and have that amount ready when you go to college,” she said.

But even a match scholar who understood the summer work contribution agreement before coming to Tufts ended up taking out a $1,000 loan at the beginning of his freshman year. “I learned about the student contribution before I got to Tufts so I got a job. I knew I had to earn a specific amount,” he said. “But when school started there was a lot of confusion because I thought that was all I’d need, but I didn’t know about textbooks.” If a student does not have all of their money for books up front, it leaves them strapped for cash at the beginning of the semester. And even if students have the cash on hand, they are reluctant to go into the school year with a net-zero bank account.

Students also agree that the financial aid officers are not equipped to handle the QuestBridge program properly. One junior match scholar explained that the first time he met with his financial aid officer, the officer did not know about QuestBridge. “My freshman year was a huge struggle just explaining what QuestBridge was,” he said. Another match scholar simply said, “Tufts is a little less experienced.” Even if Reilly is knowledgeable about QuestBridge, that doesn’t mean this knowledge is paralleled across the department—and there is nobody but the QuestBridge students to hold financial aid officers accountable.

A couple of students suggested that Tufts should designate a point QuestBridge officer to help match scholars with their issues—someone who understands the program well. “We need a person who understands QuestBridge and Tufts equally to give us information… the transition is hard,” said a freshman match scholar.

One junior has met with multiple members of the financial aid office to try and overcome his confusion. He has not been successful. “From the first meeting with my financial aid officer, I was already getting confused,” he said. Even after the chaos of freshman year, he still encountered some issues with his payments. Sophomore year, he had outstanding fines on his e-bill for costs he did not understand. “Nobody had any answers. Then I met with [Reilly] who broke it down, but I was still so confused,” he said. The student ended up paying off the fines (for what, he’s still not sure) because the issue was time-sensitive—in order to register for classes, he needed to clear the fines.

QuestBridge scholars also point to the lack of community at Tufts as a systemic flaw. One junior match scholar said that he expected something more upon arriving to Tufts. “I thought there would be a bigger QuestBridge community or something to connect us,” he said. There’s a growing QuestBridge support network, but the current juniors had to build it from the ground up. After going through freshman year without a central group, some scholars took action. “Sophomore year, we applied for [Tufts Community Union] recognition and got it,” he said. This means that now QuestBridge is officially recognized as a club and receives some funding for student-run events.

A freshman match scholar said that there are 19 match scholars in her class, but “I don’t know them. [The QuestBridge executive board] has done a great job having events, but I still don’t know all of [those in] my year.” A member of the QuestBridge executive board said, “People come to me and say, ‘I wish there was a program for freshmen.’ I didn’t even know who the other Quest scholars were when I got here.” Connecting with other students is something that all of the interviewed QuestBridge scholars said they valued.

Programs like QuestBridge focus on getting students into universities, but QuestBridge and Tufts overlook that there are barriers even after college admittance that prevent students from succeeding on campus. Tufts is a predominantly White, wealthy institution, which can prove to be a hard adjustment for first generation college students, many of whom are people of color. Does the financial aid office address this cultural difference? “There clearly is a reason why students feel upset,” said Dean Mack, Even though “Patty Reilly can hand us a letter and say everything’s okay.” Financial support is only one part of a larger issue for QuestBridge students—a supportive community would help them thrive on the Tufts campus.

Some other programs provide this sense of community with proven success. Posse is a college access program like QuestBridge, but with a specific focus on leadership development and support networks at partner schools. Each year, a Posse of 10 students is admitted to a school that provides full four-year scholarships to the students. This group of ten students stays together as a support system throughout their time in college. This program has been successful—there is a 90 percent graduation rate amongst Posse scholars.

The Posse program is especially focused on providing on-campus support for Posse members. According to the organization’s website, “Posse staff members visit each university four times a year for meetings with Posse Scholars, campus liaisons and mentors. Each mentor meets weekly with the Posse as a team and with each Scholar individually every two weeks during the first two years in college.”

Perhaps Tufts could take cues from Posse’s strategies. Developing a stronger partnership between QuestBridge and Tufts would likely help with the communication barriers. Collaboration would ensure that the messaging strategies of Tufts and QuestBridge are both aligned and effective—there would be a sense of accountability that is currently nonexistent.

QuestBridge could also benefit from something similar to Posse’s community-centric approach. “That’s the thing about QuestBridge—you don’t know who to go to here,” said one student. The student-led club as it stands has its benefits, but students wish there was more of a centralized way for them to connect, ideally organized by Tufts. And program-led systems like Posse’s have been successful.

Dean Mack’s role is to serve as a point of contact for QuestBridge students, but he explains that “there’s no definition or job description for what that means.” If students come to him, Mack will direct them to someone in administration who can be of assistance. “He has been our godsend and I don’t know what we would do without him,” said one match scholar. But he can’t solve everything. Dean Mack understands that financial aid processes can be unclear to students, especially the new freshmen. He seeks to clear up any confusion, but it can be difficult. “I think it’s really hard for incoming students…to learn all of those pieces,” he said.

One junior match scholar explained that his mom tried to call QuestBridge when she felt that her son wasn’t getting his promised aid. She was unable to reach anyone. Why had his mother had contacted QuestBridge and not Tufts? QuestBridge was not providing his scholarship money. He was confused. When asked if he knew that QuestBridge didn’t handle his money, he shrugged.

Ultimately, it is more difficult for QuestBridge scholars to navigate the system, as many are first generation college students or do not have the experience or support that’s necessary. The students who rely most on the financial aid office and other administrative entities are often the least equipped to navigate them. Perhaps it is these subtleties that Tufts and QuestBridge are not sensitive to.

And both sides seem ill equipped to succeed. The financial aid office is ill equipped to communicate effectively with QuestBridge scholars. And the QuestBridge scholars are ill equipped to know what questions to ask their financial aid officers.

There are certain places where Tufts can improve: making sure that their communication is more transparent, creating a community for QuestBridge students from the very beginning, and teaching students how they should be budgeting their money to get the most out of their scholarships.

Still, all of the match scholars echoed that they are immensely grateful for their scholarships, despite the issues they have encountered at Tufts. “I’m sure our entire class is genuinely grateful—this was the reach school for me money-wise, and I would have never applied here if it wasn’t for Questbridge,” said one junior. One match scholar was initially hesitant to speak out because he didn’t want to come off as ungrateful, though he experienced many issues with the financial aid department. “I’m so thankful for this scholarship, don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t be here without it,” he said.

As one match scholar said, “Quest helped us get here, but the financial aid office isn’t helping us stay here.”


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