To Stay or To Go?

“IS TAKING A LEAVE ONLY FOR RICH STUDENTS?” the anonymous posters in the GCC hallway screamed in all caps. While the initial reaction to the news of the changing refund policy has quieted in the last several months, many students are still disconcerted and uncertain about how the changes will affect future students who take mid-semester leaves from the college. Why is the policy changing? And more fundamentally, why do Reedies take leaves in such high numbers in the first place? 

In an email sent to the community late last semester, treasurer Lorraine Arvin explained that Reed’s current policy of refunding partial tuition to students going on leave all the way up until the last week of the semester was very unusual, especially when compared to peer colleges reviewed by the administration. Under the old policy, when students took leave during the semester, tuition was refunded even while the costs of various resources that it paid for couldn’t be reduced. Because the college’s budget, including facilities, maintenance, and faculty staffing, is based on the expected number of enrolled students, losing that tuition while still paying fixed costs impacts future tuition levels as well as how much funding is available for programs in years to come.

In the past two years, Reed has refunded one million dollars in tuition to students taking leaves of absence, some of which was offset by grants and financial aid, leaving the college short by approximately six thousand dollars of net tuition value. “We don’t want to be like airlines and assume that there’s fallout, [or] over-enroll classes like Hum,” Lorraine Arvin said. “We want to place students well with classes staffed by consistent faculty. Our true comparable schools do that too, but they don’t have the rates of leaves and low graduation rates [that Reed has].” Twenty percent of Reed students do not finish their fourth year, and the six year graduation rate for students who go on medical leave is only 38%.

According to records kept by the Registrar’s Office and Dean of Students’ Office, the number of students who take general leaves of absence and medical leaves of absence vary from semester to semester, with 60% of general leaves taken before a semester begins and 90% of medical leaves taken during a semester. More students take general leaves of absence than medical leaves overall.

The number of students going on leave spiked in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, raising concerns among the various administrative offices that handle student enrollment. After comparing Reed’s refund system for student leaves to those of other colleges, the enrollment management group decided that a change in policy was in order. “It was noticeable from a financial standpoint,” Lorraine said, emphasizing that looking into leaves of absence did not start out as a financial issue.

Beyond financial strain and comparisons to other colleges, the enrollment management group is seeking to understand why so many Reed students take leaves in the first place. While Reed’s intense academic stress culture can certainly create significant strain on students, Lorraine believes that the normalization of going on leave is harmful. She believes that adjusting the policy and reducing the high numbers of leaves is a matter of equity for the students who stay. “Another part of this is the longstanding belief among students and faculty that it’s totally normal to need to take a leave due to Reed being very demanding,” Lorraine said.

“At any given time, about 10% of the student body is on leave,” said Mike Brody. “At most schools [leaves] happen between semesters; our situation is unusual because many students leave during the semester.” Students can take up to four semesters of leave without being considered as having dropped out, though many never return. During spike years, there are even fewer returners, making it nearly impossible to budget for semester-long fixed costs. Over the past few years, fewer students have returned from leave than expected, despite efforts to reach out to them, including a webpage designed to offer alternatives to taking a leave and increased student resources.

“It reflects this very complicated chicken and egg scenario,” said Mike Brody. “We don’t know why Reed students take leaves in such high numbers. My job is to figure out how to support students, which costs money. My role is also to meet new demands for resources. With a gap of half a million bucks, if no students left this semester and I had that money to work with to support students... Do we change policy to retain that money to invest in services that help retain students, and help them thrive so that they don’t need to take leaves in such high numbers?”

Taking a Look at the Financials

In February, Mike Brody sent an email informing the community of the proposed changes in the leave of absence refund policy: “The proposed change will result in a reduction in the amount of tuition refund some students receive when taking a leave of absence from the college, particularly leaves taken after the first month of the semester.” The email also announced a listening session for students to voice concerns.

Students were concerned and even outraged at the proposed change, believing it would unfairly impact low SES students needing to take leaves. Henry, a student currently on leave whose name has been changed for privacy, spoke to this concern: “As far as I understand, it seems like the new policy will monetarily penalize students taking a leave. It’s not necessarily saying you can’t take a leave of absence, but it is saying that only people with a lot of money will be able to afford taking a leave.”

Milyon Trulove, assistant director of financial aid and admissions, wanted to make sure everyone understood what exactly is at stake in terms of financial aid for students going on leave. “There has been a culture of encouraging students to take a leave if classes have become too difficult, or to take a break from academics. But I worry about that, because it really messes up their financial aid. I think not everyone knows about that.” Trulove emphasized that for federal financial aid sources such as Pell grants and federal loans, the ten week refund calendar is nothing new, and that under the past policy students on federal and Reed aid were subjected to two separate refund calendars. The new policy aligns Reed scholarships to the same refund schedule as federal funding.

Henry brought up the concern that students who lose a semester of aid may not be able to obtain the resources they need to graduate. “Say you’re given eight semesters of financial aid as part of admission. When you go on leave, you don’t get credit for that semester, and they don’t tell you whether you get another semester of aid. When you run out of financial aid senior year, they’re probably going to say yes when I ask to finish, please,” he said. Milyon elaborated that students in such a situation can go to admissions committee and petition for extra terms of financial aid. “That’s why we’re trying to get people to come talk to financial aid earlier, so they know what the financial impact of taking a leave is,” Milyon said.

Preventing Leaves

Mike Brody believes that the building stress that leads to students having to take leaves could be alleviated by getting involved and spending more time making connections with others. “A thing that’s unique about Reed is the singular focus on academics. Engaging in [extracurricular activities] that are meaningful is important, so that when you’re struggling in class you feel competent, and know that you’re contributing to something important.”

Of course, extracurriculars, support from friends, student services, and other institutional safety nets cannot keep every student every time from needing to take a leave, especially in emergency situations. For Çansu Saraç, a math major and international student from Turkey, taking a leave became the only choice, due to worsening depression and slipping grades. “It took a long time to figure out when to leave. It just got to a point where I couldn’t fix my grades anymore,” she said. “I would have taken it earlier, immediately, if I had known this was going to happen.” Çansu explained that even though she will not be finishing the semester, her financial aid has been getting used up along the way, and Reed has offered her exactly eight semesters of aid. Her father has continued to pay hefty tuition costs while she has struggled and decided to take a leave. When asked what she would say to someone currently grappling with the decision to take a leave or not, Çansu responded, “I kept changing my mind so many times. I would tell them that’s normal.” When asked what could have helped her not need to take a leave, Çansu emphasized that the support that really would have made a difference in her situation would have come from her family, not the school. She expressed frustration at the financial implications of taking a leave, even though she agreed that it was the best course of action in her situation. “Right now, the fact that financial aid won’t give me another semester, I really don’t like that,” she said. “But it’s probably some business thing I don’t understand.” 

Çansu’s position is particularly challenging due to being both an international student and being on financial aid. "I considered changing majors, but if you’re on financial aid or an international student, you can’t really change your major later on.” Çansu plans to volunteer over this summer at home, and then come back to Reed in the fall. 

Henry believes there are deeper institutional issues at play. “It seems like chronic stress is rooted in the history of this school. It’s like we’re trying to push that away, but the ghost still lingers.” Henry, who is also currently taking time away to manage mental health issues, urges fellow Reedies who find themselves in a similar situation to take action as soon as possible. As the Quest reported earlier this semester, the HCC does not provide the level of mental health resources and care that many students need. Improving and increasing mental health services on campus may well be a key in reducing the number of leaves students take by addressing mental health concerns before they become crises.

Time and again, everyone interviewed made clear that the most important thing to consider when thinking about taking a leave is making a decision earlier rather than later.  Henry added, “It’s important to be clear with yourself about whether you want to come back or not.” He asserted that if something is making you miserable or preventing you from completing your work, it’s better to take the time to take care of it without the stress and commitment of school on your shoulders. “I plan to come back next semester,” Henry said. “Right now I’m going to therapy ten hours a week, to try and get back on track, rebuild my brain in some way.”

Aside from emergency and medical leaves, some Reedies choose to take time away for other reasons. While one metric of a college’s quality and ranking is its four year graduation rates, Lyla Boyajian wants us to question the assumption that getting a college degree and the process of growing up associated with it should happen within a traditional four year timeline. Lyla, a sophomore Spanish major, plans on taking a general leave of absence next year and participating in the Birthright Armenian Program. “It’s going to be the largest amount of time I’ll have ever been out of school,” she said. “I don’t know what it’s like to be me and not be in school.” While some people were confused by Lyla’s plan, she was grateful for all the support she has received. “I think it’s really silly to assume that [completing college] will take everyone four years and that everyone will do it in the same way...It’s just a really weird thing to take for granted.”

What Should Reedies Expect Next Semester?

While attempts to find the actual language of the new policy have been unsuccessful (the exact wording is still in the works, and will be posted on Reed’s website this summer), the gist is that students who decide to go on leave within the first ten weeks of a semester will be able to obtain a full refund, but that after that deadline tuition reimbursement will decrease dramatically, and no student will be allowed to go on leave after the official last day of classes. The purpose of the altered timeline is to balance retaining funds for the college with minimizing the impact on financially vulnerable students. Lorraine emphasized that there are avenues for such students to petition the administrative committee for emergency funds, as well as obtain tuition insurance in case a leave is necessary after the first month. “But if you go past this short time window, going on leave becomes pretty enormously expensive,” Henry pointed out.

Milyon emphasized that while the schedule for Reed financial aid refunds is changing, it will now be on a very similar timeline to existing federal financial aid deadlines. “Right now there’s a misunderstanding that [the new refund policy] will greatly disadvantage students on more financial aid, but I think it actually just brings everyone onto the same schedule. This is not something that targets the poor kids. They’ve been subjected to federal regulations that others are not, so I think this will actually make things more fair.”

Because each leave of absence situation is so unique, there’s no single way to prevent students from needing them or to ensure everyone who is away from Reed for a semester or more graduates. While many administrators have made it their mission to provide better information and resources regarding leaves while mitigating the financial consequences of refunds, some students will still find themselves in a situation where taking a leave is the only option. Most students who go on leave fully intend to return, but as administrative records show, many don’t make it to graduation.

The ultimate goal from an administrative perspective is to establish a sensible financial policy while also supporting students in crisis. “My hope is that we can help people find the resources they need to come back. I think that’s something we’ve really grown in,” Milyon concluded.

A love-hate relationship with the college is not uncommon among those who leave: “Despite all the issues I have with this place, there’s nowhere else in the world where I could get this education," said Henry. "Especially since my transcript here is pretty terrible. Transferring anywhere else would be kind of a non-starter."

If you find yourself considering a leave mid-semester, make sure to read the new policy, meet with financial aid, and make a decision before the ten weeks of refundable tuition have run out. As for whether the new policy will alleviate financial strain on the college as intended, only time will tell.