Recession pressures strain financial aid budget

By Jean Park

The past few years have altered the financial aid budget for the 2010-2011 school year. The recent recession has caused many families to experience financial reversals, such as job losses or other monetary emergencies, which left them unable to afford the school’s tuition, Chief Financial Officer Rob Levin said.

“We encouraged those families to apply for aid. The application and review process established what portion they could cover and Harvard-Westlake financial aid then covered the rest,” Levin said.

The past couple of years, however, have demonstrated the need for more funding for such emergencies in the financial aid budget. The school typically accounted for 10 to 12 emergencies a year and often were confronted by fewer, but during the 2008-2009 school year, the school was confronted by almost 30 family emergencies. Last year, there were roughly 40.

“The 2008-2009 burst, prompted by the fall 2008 market and economic collapse, caught us by surprise and led to a financial aid budget overage,” Levin said. “We did what we had to do for Harvard-Westlake students and accepted the resulting financial pain.”

Although the recession affected the school and the families and students connected to the school community, Director of Financial Aid Geoffrey Bird noted that the school tried hard not to compromise financial aid by working with families to come up with a package that was best suited for each family’s circumstances.

“Financial aid packages are tailored to parents’ maximum capacity to pay. Hence, it would make no sense to reduce them; there is no point in asking a family to pay more than it is able,” Levin explained.

The process of financial aid starts with the school’s utilization of the Parents’ Financial Statement, which is processed through the National Association of Independent Schools. The school works with parents when they apply and submit tax documents to show their income and assets.

“It’s a very sophisticated formula with many factors…we take a lot of things into consideration to help people more,” Bird said.

Although there was a slight reduction in the number of new students requiring financial aid admitted by the school in the Spring of 2009, most of the emergency provisions for the existing students came from “amazing budget sensitivity by faculty and staff, roughly $1 million in voluntary savings, and extraordinary Harvard-Westlake community generosity: $6,175,000 annual giving and $300,000 HWPA Annual Event support,” Levin said.

The school was able to build provisions for 40 emergencies into the 2010-2011 budget and was able to once again accept a normal number of students requiring financial aid last spring.

Bird and Levin both stressed the fact that Harvard-Westlake has a very family-like community.

“We try to be there for our families if and when things go wrong [because] they depend on it,” Levin said.