NEW YORK — Octavio Brindis thought he had it made when he won a scholarship funded by Microsoft founder Bill Gates to help him go to college tuition-free.
The second of five children of Mexican immigrants, Brindis has a father who works in a wine company warehouse and makes less than $40,000 a year. His mother is unemployed. Yet, financial-aid officials at Boston College, where it costs about $60,000 to attend, told Brindis he needed to pay about $2,500 a year — part of a mandated student contribution. Lacking the cash, he took out $5,000 in loans over two years, he said.
The aid officer told “me that I was contributing such a small percentage to what my education costs, but she didn’t understand that small percentage was a much bigger percentage to my family,” Brindis, 21, said.
Scholarship programs funded by some of the nation’s biggest donors including Gates, Coca-Cola, and Michael Dell, are taking aim at practices used by wealthy colleges, such as Boston College, which has a $1.65 billion dollar endowment, Amherst, with a $1.64 billion fund. and Barnard, with $216.4 million. They say the schools hurt poor and minority students by rescinding aid once they find out they have awards from outside sources or by banning use of the funds to cover some student contributions.
Donors complain that their gifts are boosting a school’s bottom line rather than students.
Boston College said its policy evens the playing field for financial-aid students, according to Bernie Pekala, director of student financial strategies at the private institution.
Any student receiving financial aid must still fork over what is known as the summer contribution, though students can earn the amount or borrow.
Letting students such as Brindis use outside grants to cover the contribution “would be unfair to all the other ones who didn’t win the Gates,” Pekala said.
At Amherst College, a wealthy liberal arts school in Massachusetts, students cannot use outside scholarships to pay their “summer contribution,” which can run as high as $1,600, said Tom Parker, dean of admission and financial aid.
“Here’s the conundrum. You want to treat everybody as equally as you can,” Parker said. “Morally it’s a difficult question.”
Scholarships have become more valuable as tuition increases have outpaced the inflation rate for four decades, saddling borrowers with $1 trillion in education loans. President Obama is pressing colleges to control costs and ease the burden on students.
College policies rescinding or cutting funding because of outside scholarships “takes away a reward that the student earned through hard work and concentrated effort,” according to a report to be released by the National Scholarship Providers Association.