Unexpected Charges Leave Students Distrustful of Courtesy Meals Program

Some of those who used the Courtesy Meals Program found funds from their financial aid redistributed to go toward its costs.

Entrance to the NYU Academic Resource Center, one of the NYU Courtesy Meals locations. (Staff Photo by Julia McNeill)

The Courtesy Meals Program, which is supposed to be free, affected some financially vulnerable students’ aid packages this week, leading to confusion and distrust of the program.

The CMP provides students with Dining Dollars — and, if a proposed change goes through, meal swipes — to ensure they don’t go hungry. However, a small group of users received an email from the Office of Financial Aid on Wednesday notifying them that their financial aid packages would be adjusted due to their use of the program.

Student government Chairperson and Gallatin senior Jakiyah Bradley previously served as a Senator at-Large for food-insecure students. Bradley first learned about the policy change through a constituent, but saw Instagram stories drawing attention to it being widely circulated by students. Bradley said immediately after hearing about students’ financial aid being affected, she brought the issue to administrators who said they would begin working to resolve it.

One of the first to post it to their story, Steinhardt senior Elaine Cao had $150 taken out of their work-study to go toward the CMP.

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“I think it’s a cash grab,” Cao told WSN. “I don’t think it’s the first time the university has promised us a service that’s supposed to be helpful that ended up harming students, especially vulnerable students.”

Cao cited issues with the Bias Response Line and Counseling and Wellness Services as other instances where disadvantaged students have felt let down by NYU. Although angry as well, Cao said they were mainly confused over what had happened.

After receiving an initial email on Thursday notifying them of a change in their financial aid package — which made no reference to the CMP — Cao called NYU Student Affairs Chief of Staff Elizabeth Kuzina, who is listed on the CMP’s website.

According to Cao, Kuzina said her office was notified of the change 24 hours prior and, in addition to reaching out to affected students, her office would be notifying future users of the CMP that it could affect their financial aid. This led Cao to believe, moving forward, their financial aid would be lowered by using the CMP — but, one day later, they received an email from Interim Director of the Office of Financial Aid Virginia Weiner which said the “technical adjustment” of their financial aid was unnecessary and their aid would be reverted back to its original award. 

Cao used the CMP because they were in a financially vulnerable position. Changes to their financial aid or work-study mean potentially not being able to afford essentials, yet NYU administrators didn’t seem to be on the same page as each other regarding how or why the change had been made, or if it was permanent.

In a statement to WSN, university spokesperson John Beckman said the issue had been resolved for most students as of Friday.

“In hindsight, we should have sorted out the issue before communicating with the students about what turned out to be a resolvable problem. We regret the misunderstanding that resulted,” Beckman said. “But, to be clear, by Friday afternoon, in less than 72 hours, we had addressed the issue and told the students we had done so.”

Based on his statement and Cao’s account, it seems that students whose use of the CMP caused their aid packages to exceed their cost of attendance were the ones whose aid were affected.

For Cao, whether or not it had been resolved, not knowing what was going was distressing.

“I was just confused for the whole week, worried about missing out on almost a whole paycheck,” Cao said. “I wish none of us had to go through this week of panic and confusion over NYU, feeling betrayed and tricked into buying meal swipes.”

Gallatin junior Sofia Licir had a similar experience after they realized $300 of their financial aid was redistributed from a Pell Grant to the CMP.

“I was originally confused because the email never outlined that my financial aid was affected because of Courtesy Meals,” Licir wrote in an Instagram direct message to WSN. “It wasn’t until I spoke to my friends who also participated in Courtesy Meals when we found out that was the reason.”

A CAS junior who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of food insecurity was charged $75, affecting her student loans. She found out about the change through a friend.

“I was just confused and disappointed because I just felt disrespected,” she said. “I felt like NYU didn’t keep its integrity, I felt like I’d been lied to. I’m asking for you to help and then you’re just doing this behind my back.”

Each student interviewed by WSN said they were discouraged from using the program again and many others have shared the news to their Instagram stories. Though the changes have been rectified, students say the reputation of the CMP has been seriously affected.

“It’s a deterrent for me taking out Courtesy Meals again, and I think that it’s likely that it would deter others,” Cao said.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 11, 2019 print edition. Email Victor Porcelli at [email protected]

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