At the end of May, Sierra Scott, GS, found herself in a predicament: She had to sign a new lease on her Columbia apartment, but she still wasn't sure if she could afford to live there. As a result, University Apartment Housing permitted her to continue her month-to-month lease but requested that she inform them of her plans at the end of June. Though she submitted her financial aid documentation during the first week of April, by June 27 she had yet to receive her notification. When she approached Alice Gamret, director of residential leasing, she informed her that she had to move out by June 30. Scott's troubles had started in the fall of 2010, when the Student Financial Planning office lost her paperwork as a result of an office transition and did not process her Pell Grant disbursement. The School of General Studies' Office of Educational Financing, which took over all financial aid processing for GS students on Jan. 1, 2011, did not discover the mistake until February, so Scott did not receive her Federal Pell Grant money for the spring 2011 semester until the middle of July. Because GS did not catch the mistake until February—well after the course registration deadline—Scott wound up being a part-time student enrolling in University Housing, an exception the school grants only once. When she emailed Daniel Rodriguez, associate director of educational financing, on June 30, she received an email saying that he was out of office from June 20 to July 4. (That email was actually incorrect—he was out from June 30 to July 4.) She contacted the Office of Educational Financing, and the person who answered the phone was new and unable to help her. Scott—who is now on a leave of absence due to financial duress—is one of many GS students whose financial planning for this academic year has been made more difficult as a result of the school's delay in announcing financial aid packages and responding to students' inquiries in a timely manner. When she finally received her notification on Aug. 11, she discovered that her award was two and a half times the award she received for the previous academic year. "It was so shocking," she said. "If I could have banked on getting two and a half times more aid, you bet I would've stuck around." Notification delay In March 2011, Skip Bailey, director of educational financing at GS, sent an email to students indicating that the school anticipated that responses to financial aid applications would be mailed out in mid-June. Any students who applied after the priority deadline of April 15 would have reduced awards or awards would not be available to them. But the school started sending out notifications not in mid-June but on Aug. 8, even for those students who had submitted their documentation on time. By Aug. 12, almost all students had received their financial aid packages. Roughly 20 students were not packaged by Aug. 12 due to late or missing materials or technical issues preventing their packaging, according to Dean of Enrollment Management Curtis Rodgers. General Studies Student Council President Jacqueline Thong, GS, said Rodgers had told her the delay was a "one-time thing." "We don't foresee the same issues in 2012-2013 in terms of the delay. We're on target," Rodgers said. Last January, the University adopted a new system called PowerFAIDS, which helps schools and administrators award and track financial aid. Rodgers called it "unbelievably complicated." Now, it is "fully up and running and implemented, and a lot of issues have been ironed out and sorted out with the system," he said. A student at GS, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his financial aid package had not been resolved, applied for a scholarship appeal. Given that the last day to drop a class and receive a tuition refund had already passed, he was concerned that he would find himself locked into a semester that he could not afford. "Lucky for me, my private loan situation had been resolved at the beginning of the semester in that I would be able to apply and get a loan," he said. "However, the financial aid office was unaware of that so it would not have impacted their ability to provide me my appeal, and the appeal is still ongoing." Receiving notification of financial aid packages so late in the summer makes taking out loans far more difficult, Scott said. "It felt like they just don't ever consider, from the student's point of view, what it's like to take on huge loans and debt and how it might feel to them that they can't make a decision without being fully informed of their awards," she said. Rodgers said that he was unaware of any students dropping out as a result of the delay. Communication issues But the struggles students face with financial aid extend beyond the notification delay. For some, the issue is simply a lack of communication. When Grace Oliver discovered Columbia at a job fair hosted by her community college in California, she was certain that Columbia was the perfect school for her. One year later, the excitement of going to a prestigious school has lost its luster. Oliver has now been forced to drop out of GS so that she can work and pay for her education. Oliver met with Bailey, who told her to consider attending a state school if she could not find a co-signer on a private loan. Oliver said she was "gob-smacked" by the idea that a financial director would make such a suggestion. "I just poured my heart into writing an admissions essay to change my life to come to New York City," she said. "I moved 3,000 miles and left behind a community college that I went to for free to come to this school, and you tell me to go to a fucking state school? You've got to be out of your damn mind." Oliver applied for a scholarship appeal, but Bailey told her that they are still waiting to make a decision. It was simply too late for her. "I couldn't get my classes this semester, and it is only a matter of time that I am going to be shoved out of housing," she said. If she had stayed in California, she would have had $10,000 to pay for her education: $5,000 she already saved from last year's Federal Pell grant, and the other $5,000 that she got for this school year. For Namiko Suzuki, GS, receiving her initial financial aid package on Aug. 12 was late enough, but she was pleasantly surprised to receive an email almost two months later telling her that she was the recipient of a named scholarship. Since she had not received notification about the scholarship before, she assumed that it was going to be added to her financial aid package. But she was dismayed to discover that the amount was already included in her award. She learned that "just getting a name for my scholarship doesn't mean that I'm getting additional scholarship," she said. Budget increase Despite students' complaints about the office's slow responses, the financial aid budget for GS students has been steadily increasing since 2006. It saw a 17 percent increase from $11.5 million during the 2010-2011 academic year to $13.4 million during the 2011-2012 academic year, according to Rodgers. Since the 2006-2007 academic year, the budget has experienced 116 percent growth from $6.2 million. During the 2008-2009 academic year, GS launched a program to increase aid awarded on the basis of need, an initiative that has already grown from $1.2 million in the 2010-2011 academic year to $2.25 million in the 2011-2012 academic year, an increase of 87 percent. Still, some students say that they are not benefiting from it. Wojtek Skrzypczak, GS, said that the increase in the financial aid budget has not translated into meaningful help for him. He received $8,200 in institutional aid for the 2010-2011 academic year. This year, he received $11,200. "Given the rise in tuition and cost of credit, we haven't really been awarded higher scholarships," he said. "It looks higher on paper but unfortunately the bills that we get for school also look higher on paper." Though Skrzypczak said he knew what his financial aid package was going to look like, he said it was disappointing that the packages reached students "very late." "It was kind of beyond the point that most people would consider reasonable for financial planning for the subsequent year," he said. Ultimately, Rodgers said that students' difficulties with financial aid extend beyond the timing of notifications. "I think the far larger problem is not late notification," he said. "It's that GS financial aid is not yet resourced in the way that we would like it to be, and the priority for the school continues to be increasing our resources for financial aid so that we can better meet the need of the students enrolled." But regardless of what causes difficulties for students concerning financial aid, Oliver said that it cannot change her present situation. "Although I feel personally grateful that I have this opportunity to enrich myself and become more of an adult, I still think that it's tragic," she said. "That it's just wrong that any student, any student at a school like Columbia for any financial reason, would ever have to step down." firstname.lastname@example.org This story has been updated to reflect a mistake in Rodriguez's email. Correction: An earlier version of the story said that the School of General Studies had lost Sierra Scott's financial aid paperwork in the fall of 2010. The paperwork was actually lost by the Student Financial Planning office. Spectator regrets the error.
Columbia Spectator Staff