Fifth Years Feel the Squeeze

If all goes according to plan, Elizabeth Watkins will graduate at the end of spring quarter with a degree in studio art. It will have been her fourth year as a transfer student at UC Irvine and her seventh as an undergraduate. Along with her degree, Watkins will also walk off stage with a $6,000 student loan.
In many ways, at first glance, she is lucky. According to, “Two-thirds (65.7 percent) of four-year undergraduate students graduate with some debt, and the average student loan debt among graduating seniors is $19,237.” Compared to that, her debt load is relatively light. However, for someone who had hoped to graduate debt free, the loan was, to say the least, a disappointment.
As late as last August, Watkins thought she would be able to graduate without debt. The first year after she transferred to UCI, she received a grant. During the second year, the money dried up. For the next two years, she “worked her ass off” at various jobs and managed to pay for her tuition and fees in cash. This year, she decided to give the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) another try. To her surprise, she was awarded $1,200 in Pell Grants and an additional $9,000 in UCI grants.
She was ecstatic. The money meant that the year’s tuition was taken care of. She told her parents, her friends and got ready for the year. In our interview, she recalled being asked by friends whether she was sure that there hadn’t been a mistake. It’s a lot of money, they said, a lot more than grants tend to be. She didn’t worry too much about it. After all, even if it had been a mistake, they could hardly ask for it back. That wouldn’t be fair.
Then in August, over two months after the original offer, an e-mail came from the financial aid office. There had been a mistake. She did not meet the satisfactory progress requirement and all of her grants would be rescinded. Apparently, transfer students are only eligible for nine quarters of financial aid. Watkins had never been told this. With classes starting soon, she had no option but to appeal. After months of back-and-forth, the school agreed to give her both grants just for fall quarter. They ended up reinstating the Pell Grants for the rest of the year, but refused to consider giving her the UCI grant.
Eventually, after running into wall after wall, she decided to take out a loan. Despite the mistake, she expressed gratitude for what she received.
“They did not have to do that. Graduating with $6,000 in loans is not bad at all. I am grateful for what they gave me, but I wish that they had done their paperwork better. Don’t tell me that you are going to give me money and then take it away.”
Watkins’ story is that of an individual, but the problems with financial aid revealed several foundational flaws with the way the University of California handles financial aid, especially with the super seniors, the students who stay for longer then the standard four years. Whether by design or by accident, the “satisfactory progress requirement” punishes students who take longer to earn their degree. This puts pressure on students who work to pay for their education as well as those who just want to experience college to the fullest extent.
The school’s policy is perfectly understandable. The University of California is the best public school system in the world and the demand for its services is huge. Every year thousands of qualified students are turned away. The same can be said of financial aid. There are simply not enough resources to go around. Just this month, the university had to announce a 6-percent cut in freshman admissions because of budget constraints. It is simply more efficient, maybe even fairer in a utilitarian sort of way, to push students to graduate earlier. That way the resources can be spread to more people.
Yet, it’s important to remember that the university is not a machine. Its goal is to educate and to produce intellectually nimble citizens, not to pump out as many B.A.s and B.S.s a year as possible. The university also has a responsibility not only to those who hope to enter but also to those who are already here. We deserve better than to be quantified into nameless, faceless units that are pushed out because a number, unqualified by any of our particular circumstances, says that we have been here too long.

Mengfei Chen is a third-year international studies major. She can be reached at