Volume 47, Number 12 - February 16, 2010

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Sergio Candido
Sergio Candido

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Perla Muller, 20, inquires about her financial aid situation. Photo by Jeannie Rodriguez.

Financial aid system poses setbacks for students

By Sergio Candido

Perla Muller was excited when she received a financial aid award of nearly $2,000 last fall.

She had no idea what lay ahead.

Muller’s nightmare began when her status changed from full-time to part-time student.  The change affected the amount of funds she was entitled to. Due to this, she had been over disbursed.

“[Financial aid] paid for my classes and I thought that everything was fine,” Muller said. “Around early December, I go and I check my schedule and it said that I owed [more than] $2,000.”

Several North Campus students have reported situations where they have been mistakenly awarded more money they were supposed to receive.

“Because the system is so dynamic, and there are always changes happening, it’s been definitely more than one [student affected].” said financial aid Director Chimene Garrison. “We have such a large population it’s hard to give you an exact number of students, but I know for sure that it has occurred.”

In Muller’s case, she was awarded $843.48 at the beginning of the fall semester, then three weeks later the funds were taken away; she had to pay for her classes “out of her own pocket.”  

“Three months after [this], I kept on going weekly [to their office] until an advisor told me that it was something with my classes,” Muller said.

Muller was being awarded money as if she still was a full-time student.

The situation was apparently solved, but toward the end of December, a second disbursement of $1,152.48 landed on her lap.

It wasn’t until the end of the semester that Muller found out she had to repay a portion of the funds that had been awarded. 

As a result of this a financial hold was placed on her records because she owed money.  When she returned this spring semester, Muller couldn’t view her schedule, her grades or request transcripts online.

“I had to go all the way to the dean to get a transcript override, for me it’s a big deal because I’m transferring,” Muller said.

Garrison said there are many cases where students are entitled to a certain amount of aid, but a change in their status affects their eligibility. The system treats this as an over disbursement if the funds had already been awarded.

There are other situations where students lose eligibility because of changes in annual income or an error detected in the verification process.

Once errors are identified, students should get an amount correlated to their status, as stated on the financial aid Web site.

“The system eventually finds out,” Garrison said.

The computerized system locates changes in students’ schedules and eligibility; their awards get reevaluated and repackaged; then it creates and sends bills.

But rather than making comprehensive changes, the computer system reacts automatically, and according to students, in some cases it fails to notify them on time.

For example, journalism/mass communication major Lesly Montes; she expected an academic grant of $375 for the fall—she never got it that semester.

However, at the beginning of the spring semester, Montes was awarded $750— that was $375 for each semester respectively.

She had already spent the money on journalism books and other personal expenses, when she received an e-mail from the school saying that she had been over disbursed.

“I didn’t know I had to give the money back, it was an academic grant that I got for the fall but it came in during the spring, so I used the money and within two or three weeks I got an e-mail asking for the money back,” Montes said.

The e-mail stated she had to repay $375; the system had failed to recognize that the sum had been changed to award both semesters.

“If I had not gone to the bursar’s office and asked, I would have paid $375 for nothing,” Montes said.

However, Muller hasn’t been able to fully resolve her issue. She is still trying to recoup the funds she paid out of pocket last semester.

She even hired an accountant to try to help her resolve the conflict.

Garrison said if students experience financial hardships and can’t afford to pay their financial hold, they can go to the dean’s office and arrange a payment plan.

“[Then] we can give them what’s called an override card or override electronically in the system that allows students to make the changes that they need…but they definitely have to come to us and let us know,” Garrison said.

Still, Muller said that she has been numerous times to the financial aid office, always unsuccessful.

She blames the front desk staff.

“What bothered me is the staff not wanting to help, the lack of customer service and the lack of knowledge,” Muller said.

“I’ve been paying the consequences of them making so many mistakes on my application.”

Recently, though, Muller is grateful for the help financial aid advisors have provided.     

Garrison believes students should be better informed about the terms and conditions of their awards before they spend the money.

“If you received double of your corresponding amount, yes, that should raise a red flag to the student to come in and check that they have received too much money,” Garrison said.

“We want students to not go and blow it in one shot, try to use that money over the course of the semester to help with education-related expenses.”

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