UB: A Financial Aid Debacle

Students at SUNY Buffalo got a rude awakening in the last couple of weeks when they suddenly realized that their financial aid (in the form of loans, grants, scholarships, and for TAs in the form of tuition wavers) would NOT be granted in time to pay their UB bills.  Are you confused by that?  Because we sure were.

All of the details are too much for me to type here (especially since I’m already having to fight to keep my eyes open…and it’s only 10:30…yes, I’m an old man), I’ll post the the Spectrum article below.  Even if you don’t have a connection to SUNY Buffalo (which is a New York State university – therefor gets funding from New York tax money), the situation is entertaining enough to read about – simply because it’ll blow your mind how messed up it is.

Financial Aid at UB Changing: Students shell-shocked by financial aid restructuring

by Matthew Parrino, Editor in Chief

Published:  August 31, 2011

Textbooks, rent, food, and transportation are expensive.

So it makes sense that most students return from summer vacation with finances already at the forefront of their mind, but this fall students were hit with a mind-boggling financial aid bombshell.

Financial aid disbursement – including loans – is now being distributed almost three full weeks later than in years past, and the add/drop period has been reduced from two weeks to one.

A total of 21 staff members in the financial aid department – 10 advisors and 11 professional staff members – are responsible for helping roughly 29,000 students figure out their financial aid dilemmas. The Student Response Center (SRC) also offers support but it has been extra busy this semester.

During the week before school started, the SRC recorded its highest call volume in a single day in its history with 10,000+ calls. The most calls recorded prior to that day was about 5,000. It was basically impossible for anybody to get through to get help with financial aid questions.

The changes to the disbursement schedule have been met with anger by many students, according to Jennifer Pollard, interim director of financial aid.

One of the many issues that have faced the financial aid office in the past has been students that have borrowed thousands of dollars in loans and failed to finish the semester. These students end up owing UB for these loans and with the changes it will be more difficult for students who have figured out the system to take advantage of financial aid.

“We had students who got refunds and then dropped out of school and then owe money,” Pollard said. “Then they would end up in collections and with the Attorney General…We can’t do that. It’s not the way it should be run. We shouldn’t be creating more problems for students with loan debt. That’s the other problem and piece to this: these are loans. So we don’t want to disperse money to students who aren’t eligible for it and then they have debt…It’s not a good practice. We want to make sure we’re working with the students on this.”

Pollard has only been in her position since May and was not aware of any research or statistical data that may or may not have been done to show what percentage of UB students took advantage of the old financial aid system.

The biggest issue about the changes are not so much that they were made as much as the lack of notice given to students.

“I don’t think we anticipated the reaction from students to be as much as it was,” Pollard said. “We knew there would be a reaction because this definitely changes things for a lot of students…Could we have done more, of course – apparently with the response from students we could have done way more.”

To continue reading the rest of the article (including the really good parts – like when Director Pollard says that students use loans to “support their lifestyle” and if they have bills to pay by Sept 1st, even though financial aid isn’t coming until the 9th, they should simply go get a part time job – and not call the Office of Financial Aid), click here
What makes the matters worse – besides Pollard’s insensitive and offensive comments – is the fact that the financial aid funds – some $140 million have already been released to UB.  So that means that it’s sitting in a UB bank account earning interest.  I read one estimate that, depending on which type of Bank of America account it’s in, interest alone could be around $60,000.
But those at the Financial Aid office don’t care.  They have jobs.  And homes.  And money for groceries.
Here is an email that I sent to Ms. Pollard this morning:
Ms Pollard,

I, like most of UB’s students have been trying to stay on top of the new financial aid policies.  Today I read the Spectrum piece on the financial aid changes and gained some insight into why the financial aid disbursement has been pushed back (the faculty senate decision, etc).  I still do not agree with it, but at least there is some explanation.  First, let me say that I may be writing to you, but I know that this is not all your fault, that there are larger powers driving all of this change.  However, as Interim Director, there are some things that you should hear about your comments in the article- from a student’s perspective.  
This argument that UB is holding the financial aid money because some students take the loans and run (and so UB is actually protecting them in the long run, or teaching them some lesson) is bogus .  I’m sure that it does happen, but I would like to see the statistics.  My guess is that an extremely low percentage of students actually do this.  But the student body at large cannot be punished for these people’s crimes.  
Secondly, and what I found must unsettling about the article, were some of your own comments regarding the situation.  Like I said, I know that the situation is larger than yourself (or any one person), but making comments that suggest students take out loans to “support a life style” is simply crass and uninformed.   I am a student who relies on financial aid.  What life style are you referring to exactly?  Having a roof over your head? 
Your comments suggest that students don’t know how to manage their finances well enough – and that these loans are meant to help pay for education “only.”  When someone enters college or grad school, they are pooling all of their resources to be able to do so.  If they have savings and assets of their own that allow them to cover the actual cost of tuition and fees – yet they still take out a loan (or are awarded a scholarship) so that they can actually pay their rent, or have grocery money, they should NOT be met with an institution that tells them, “if you have bills that need to be paid immediately, get a part time job.”  My guess is that many of the students who are getting this aid already have a part time job, yet still depend on the aid (even if they don’t have jobs, they shouldn’t have to!  They are here to focus on their education, and taking out a loan – instead of having a job – allows them to do that).  Even if financial aid money is not applied to tuition itself, paying for rent and groceries is PART OF GETTING AN EDUCATION.  
So, Ms Pollard, I know that you and your staff are frustrated and overwhelmed at the moment.  10,000 calls will do that to you.  But what else was expected?  There are thousands of students that literally depend on that financial aid.  And, of course, you know that.  But your comments in the Spectrum (and I grant that perhaps the editors took them out of context) were insensitive, uninformed, and offensive.  Instead of helping explain the situation, the “we’re actually helping students stay out of debt…they’re just paying for a lifestyle anyway” response by you (and thus your office) has only made matters far worse.  These are real lives we’re talking about here.  Perhaps some type of public apology would help.  
*signed, name & credentials*
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