Last week, an undergraduate student was heading into the Office of Financial Aid during his adviser’s walk-in hours, only to find that he was out of luck—his adviser was leaving.
“I had this very important financial aid matter and no one could help me,” he said.
The student, who asked not to be named, said his experience was indicative of a “disconnect” between students and the financial aid office.
He’s not the only one who feels that way, and the Office of Financial Aid has taken notice. Financial Aid administrators are beginning to conduct an internal review of the office, focusing on how to make it more transparent and easier for students to work with.
Karishma Habbu, CC ’13 and Columbia College Student Council’s student services representative, approached the office—which handles aid for students at Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science—with the idea of conducting a review earlier this semester.
Habbu said the idea came from students who spoke to her about their problems with the financial aid office, noting that the most common problems were with responsiveness and accessibility. She added that she wanted to address the “missing link of communication” between aid administrators and students, a concern echoed by the student who crossed paths with his adviser.
“A lot of people are afraid—they don’t want to go see their adviser because you don’t feel like they care for you,” he said. “I have financial problems, I should be able to go talk to my adviser but I don’t feel comfortable doing that.”
According to Dean of Financial Aid Laurie Schaffler, the internal review will tackle issues involving student interactions with advisers, communication among University offices, the structure of the financial aid office, and the transparency of how aid is awarded.
Schaffler said her goal is to make the financial aid process “as streamlined and quiet for students as possible.”
“All students need to take responsibility for their financial life while they are in college, but it sure would be nice if it didn’t become overwhelming and frustrating,” she said.
Account on hold
Some of the problems students have with the financial aid office are specific to particular groups. An international student, who also asked not to be named, said that he and other international students “have a lot of issues” with the financial aid office.
He noted that most international students send forms from their home countries but have no idea how those forms are assessed. The student also noted that he didn’t receive his aid award until the end of the summer.
“I became uneasy waiting month after month, not knowing whether I would be given an amount that would allow me to come to school,” he said.
Other issues are affect a wider variety of students. Schaffler said she was shocked by the “excessively high” number of students who had holds placed on their accounts this semester, meaning they had an overdue account balance of over $1,000. Students are not allowed to register for classes until all holds are lifted—in other words, until the overdue balance is reduced to less than $1,000.
Schaffler said the high number of holds was probably caused, in part, by students not being able to meet their balances.
But she speculated that her office could be creating undue confusion, noting that students came into the office just before course registration to submit their tax returns, and to fulfill other requirements that needed to be met so that financial aid could be distributed. “It felt either that we’ve created a culture where students are ignoring things, or we’re confusing about what we’re telling students to do,” Schaffler said. “Or we’re sending out too much information to students so they’re just not looking at everything because it’s too much stuff coming to them.”
Habbu called the holds issue an “illustration of the problem” of the lack of communication between the financial aid office and students.
Schaffler said it’s important for her office to figure out why the problem is happening.
“Sorting out all that information will be a little of a challenge, but I think it’s important so that we can understand,” she said.
A formal review
Although the exact details of the internal review have not yet been decided, it will be modeled on the review the Center for Student Advising conducted several years ago. It will consist of educational groups, a survey, and focus groups. Administrators are also looking into hiring an individual to organize the internal review, rather than a consulting firm, according to Habbu.
The timeline isn’t clear yet, but Schaffler said the survey will probably be sent to students in February or March, after administrators have held discussions with students to help inform their survey questions. Following the survey, focus groups will be formed to give administrators the chance to hear personal stories from students, Habbu said.
Habbu originally intended that the student council lead a review process modeled after the CSA review, but after she pitched the idea to administrators they decided to conduct the review themselves.
According to Habbu, during a meeting just before Thanksgiving, Dean of Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger told representatives from both the Columbia College and Engineering Student Councils that the review would be internal, and that administrators would be able to do a more comprehensive review than council members had envisioned.
“The fact that they [the administrators] took responsibility for it and understood that this was their job, that they should be doing, was great. The only con to it is that it’s not moving on our timeline anymore, it’s moving on their timeline,” said Habbu, who had originally hoped to send out the student survey last month.
CCSC Vice President of Student Life Jasmine Senior, CC ’12, said that the review was “something we’ve always thought about addressing and we didn’t really know how to do exactly.” The first year of Schaffler’s deanship—she started this summer—seemed to be a good time to try, Senior added.
Schaffler said that an office-wide evaluation was one of the first things she talked about doing when she got the job, before being approached by Habbu.
“That’s one of the exciting things about starting a new position, a new role, is to think about how you can help the office to be better,” she said.
“I want to know what the confusion is, what the frustration is that people are feeling, why people are feeling a lack of transparency,” she added.
“Because I will say that the financial process is really complicated.”
According to the student who missed his adviser during walk-in hours last week, the most important thing for administrators is to “realize that they … have to treat us like actual human beings.”
“The administration needs to be receptive to these changes because it’s about student wellness,” he said. “It’s about our health and our sanity.”