Students navigate financial aid as national debt increases

Category:  Opinions
Saturday, November 16th, 2019 at 1:48 PM
Students navigate financial aid as national debt increases by Zeila Hobson
Graphic: Liv Homerski

Having debt is now an expected reality. Thus, news regarding the continuous expansion of the student debt crisis shocks no one, and having debilitating debt upon graduation is now part and parcel of the college experience. 

“Student loan debt is now the second highest consumer debt category — second only to mortgages and higher than credit card debt. There are more than 44 million borrowers who collectively owe $1.6 trillion in student loan debt,” Zack Friedman wrote for Forbes.com, citing the most recent statistics on student loans. 

Annually, the Institute for College and Success (ICS) compiles and analyzes student loan data to determine the averages for each state, along with overall national student debt and other data points. ICS, a “trusted source of research, design, and advocacy for student-centered public policies that promote affordability, accountability, and equity in higher education,” according to the organization’s website, releases their findings to the public every year. The 2019 report puts Pennsylvania at the top of the list of states with the highest student debt, second only to Connecticut. 

That report, actually based on data from the 2017-18 school year, “concluded Pennsylvania students graduating with a bachelor’s degree ... Amassed, on average, $37,061 in debt,” according to Deb Erdley of TribLive.com. Erdley states that Pennsylvania’s ranking shouldn’t surprise anyone, as, “Pennsylvania graduates typically rank near the top of the list for debt in most national surveys and have for years.” That average debt for PA graduates increased $207 since the 2016-2017 school year, according to the ICS. 

The explanation for Pennsylvania's student debt crisis is as multifaceted as it is unclear. Could it be that our state schools have higher tuition than those of other states, or that our dropout rate is higher so that graduates can’t get higher-paying jobs to mitigate their debt? Does it have something to do with living costs, or saturation of the job market with liberal arts degree holders? Or, perhaps, as I’ve found, are students sometimes uninformed about how to navigate financial aid processes and the intricacies of registration and aid?

Gabriel Merriman, a junior independent studies major at EU, had a difficult time trying to get his aid. “Long story short,” he began, “there was an issue processing my FAFSA, and Financial Aid said they had not received it. I ended up doing it twice more to get it through. At that point, it was considered late and I was charged an extra $100 as a late fee, even though I was in communication with the [Edinboro] Bursar already.” He continued, “I found out later that my FAFSA wasn’t going through because my name wasn’t the exact same (there’s a character limit that my last name exceeds by two letters) and that’s why it wasn’t processed the first two times.”

Small miscommunications like the one described by Merriman can have a big cost, and all three of the offices in Hamilton Hall work closely together to prevent them. Shari Gould, the Bursar at Edinboro University, as well as the EU representative on the PA Statewide College Affordability Initiative, sat down with The Spectator to talk through the intricacies of the aid process, both related to student issues and beyond. 

“From a billing perspective, we have an integrated system. Registration drives the bill and we have billing rules: some that are tied to the student’s class or status, some that are assigned to the course level (meaning certain courses have a STEM fee or an art fee), and then some rules that are tied to the campus. That’s why if you take all off-campus courses, like student teaching, you do not pay activity, health or university center fees,” she explained. 

Gould continued: “The three offices in Hamilton (Bursar, Records and Registration, and Financial Aid) have to work closely together. Every single day we get reports. For example, we get a report if a student is dropping a class, and each office reviews it so the student’s bill can reflect that.” 

Gould offered another example: students who move out of state but continue online classes at Edinboro are reported to all three offices. Here, Records and Registration audits their own records to make sure they are accurate, then they send a report to the Bursar and Financial Aid so the proper billing and aid adjustments can be made to reflect the residency change. She continued: “Even when a refund is calculated, we run report after report. I don’t think people know we are doing all of that behind the scenes.”

Auditing reports and student accounts is common practice in Hamilton Hall, and according to Gould, “Because this is a state school, PHEAA (Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency) audits us periodically — we just had a Veterans audit last week — and we have federal audits.” 

She continued: “Every other June, an A1-33 audit is conducted by an independent contractor that reports to the federal government. Each one of those audits, they pull a random sample of students to see those students’ registration screens, what they were billed and their financial aid awards.” Gould was excited to report, “We’ve had very clean audits.” 

The last PHEAA auditors, according to Gould, were in and out in the same day after auditing 25 accounts that were randomly chosen from thousands.

Regarding support for individual students, Gould acknowledged that assigned financial advisors would be helpful. “What I think is so confusing is that there are so many steps in the process,” she said. 

“Step 1: FAFSA. Step 2: PHEAA grant application. Step 3: Award acceptance. We have eligible students miss the deadline and lose thousands in free money, so my advice is to look at your deadlines!” 

Gould acknowledged that the sub-steps in these three categories are often overlooked by students. According to her, the biggest concern is the “students that were going to get financial holds [this semester], 20% had not finished the financial process, such as not doing the entrance counseling.” 

“Your freshman year, you have to accept your master promissory note and do your entrance counseling. That’s a federal law. We don’t get your loan money until it is complete. Sometimes students think we have money that we’re just choosing not to put on the account, but we do not have access to it until those requirements are satisfied,” she explained. 

Regarding the interconnectedness of the Bursar, Records and Registration, and Financial Aid offices, Gould said, “We have shared comment screens that are attached to each account.” As per Gould, any important information regarding the account, such as calls from students or parents detailing a late FAFSA application, are marked on the comment screen and visible to all offices. This is one of several checks and balances that exist among the offices, and she asserted that “constant communication” happens between them. 

Still, there are students — like Merriman— that can fall through the cracks. Jen Murphy chose Edinboro because it is in a safe town across the state from her hometown near the Poconos. A first-generation college student, Murphy was excited to pursue her passion for art history at EU, but she found herself confounded by the FAFSA and other financial aid requirements. 

Remembering her first couple of years at Edinboro, Murphy said, “I didn’t know how to do anything, and my parents couldn’t help me figure anything out.” She continued, “I was working 40 hours a week and taking four classes. I was in clubs and extracurriculars. But I still had to sleep and fit in a social life somewhere while I’m here, trying to get the full college experience. In between all of that, I’m supposed to make three different stops in two different buildings and talk to five different people about the status of my financial aid when all of this could and should be handled through a single office?” 

Murphy said better communication is needed regarding financial aid, suggesting students should have a financial aid advisor who sticks with them all four years (as previously mentioned, an opinion shared by Gould). This advisor would be able to guide them through the jargon and applications, and could explain the interconnectedness of Financial Aid, Records and Registration, and the Bursar’s office. 

On top of her general confusion, Murphy also ran into an issue following her undergrad career.

Recently, she decided to begin her preparation for graduate school for art restoration and realized she needed an associate degree in chemistry. Murphy graduated from EU in May of 2018 with a bachelor’s in art history — or so she thought. To her surprise and horror, she was technically not even a graduate. Connected, Murphy had thought her loans were deferred, but now she wondered if that deferment was still valid if she was technically not graduated. 

“I walked at graduation Spring 2018, but I was told by my advisor that I needed to take one more class in order to graduate,” began Murphy. “She told me to get a class waiver form and have it signed by X, Y, Z people and it would be fine. After that, I went to the office of Records and Registration to get information about an unrelated topic and mentioned this class waiver issue offhand. I was stressed out about graduation and tired to the max. The lady behind the desk told me, ‘You have more credits than you need to graduate with your degree, don’t worry about the waiver.’ I was so relieved, applied for loan deferment and got on with my life.”

She continued, “Fast forward to two months ago when I called in to see about getting reinstated for grad chemistry classes and get information about financial aid for grad students; I find out from a different employee that the class was not fulfilled, everything was not fine, and that I did need to take the class to actually be graduated and be eligible for graduate aid. Fast forward two more weeks, I show up in person and am told the class has been fulfilled because a dean of something had signed off on the class substitution I’d been told about over a year prior.”

From there, her story involves financial holds, more visits to Hamilton Hall, accounting errors and more. 

“I thought I was a graduate for a year and a half,” said Murphy.

 “I thought everything was fine and that my diploma had gotten sent to my parents’ house, and they just forgot to mention it arriving. Thank God I didn’t apply to any serious jobs yet. What if they wanted me to request my transcript? I would have looked like a fool, like an unprofessional idiot.” Murphy sagged a bit in her chair, expressing gratitude that the aforementioned scenario was just a “What if?”

She concluded: “At the end of the day, I didn’t receive my diploma over a $62 accounting error, on top of the missing class mess.”

College is stressful enough without miscommunications between offices getting in the way. “Every time I think about it I get a tension headache," said Murphy, who will still be returning to EU to earn an Associate’s in chemistry. Luckily, the deferment held, and she did not default on her loans during the year she unwittingly spent in degree purgatory, no thanks to the Hamilton offices. 

That’s not to say there are no resources for Edinboro students. Every Friday is FAFSA Friday. According to Gould, students can show up with their FSA login information and get help filing their applications. There is also a wealth of information on the financial literacy section of EU’s website, located underneath the financial aid tab. The financial aid office declined to respond to The Spectator’s request for comment, but Gould was steadfast that help can always be found in Hamilton Hall. 

“We’re always trying to maximize the amount of grant money and SCOGs available to students. We were all students once and we understand the costs,” she stated. 

Gould continued: “I really want students to understand that if they do not understand any aspect of the financial aid process, they need to come visit us at Hamilton Hall. We take it as far as we can at cashier windows. If you call me directly, I take calls and you can come speak with me.” She also noted that students can schedule appointments with any of the three financial aid counselors. 

Julia Mutranowski, a senior psychology major, has done so multiple times in the past. She told The Spectator about her most recent visit with EU Financial Aid Counselor Brianne McClellan.

“I went in to see if it was more worth it financially to stay a full-time student or drop down to part time,” she began. Mutranowsk wants to decrease her credit load next semester due to a job opportunity, but worried that the loss of her credit-based scholarships would be an insurmountable obstacle.

According to Mutranowski, she explained her situation to McClellan and received instant answers. “Within two or three minutes, she had found which aid I was still eligible for ... I was in and out in five minutes, feeling much better than when I went in.” 

According to Scholarships.com, common questions about financial aid include: “Will scholarships affect my eligibility for financial aid? Will the college fund my parents have saved for me affect my eligibility for financial aid? What can I do if I don’t receive enough government financial aid? And, how can I increase my chances of winning scholarships?”  

Scholarships will affect financial aid, but not by much, and the site recommends increasing “your chances of winning [a scholarship] by decreasing competition." It tells you to "Apply for awards restricted to your city or major, or other specific criteria.”  

Parental savings will also influence aid, though that should not discourage people from saving. According to the site: “Less than 6% of parent assets are taken into account when determining financial need. Student assets are weighed more heavily so consider using student money to buy college necessities before submitting the FAFSA.” If a student doesn’t receive enough government aid, they should talk to the financial aid administrators at their school, and apply constantly for grants and scholarships. According to Scholarships.com, loans should be a “last resort.” 

Unfortunately, loans are the only option for many Pennsylvania graduates. Still, some are better than others. During her interview, Gould mentioned the new PA Forward Student Loan Program by PHEAA, wherein loans have lower interest than federal or private loans. Gould also noted the new and improved private loan website available through the financial aid web portal, which cross references the best private loans available so students can make an educated decision.  

With an average state debt of more than $37,000 hanging over their heads, EU students deserve due diligence from the offices that exist to help them. That due diligence exists, but is it enough? Merriman paid an extra $100, and Murphy was charged an extra $62. It only takes 230 of these $162 mistakes to total $37,000. Financial holds and late fees aren’t the same as private and federal loans, but one wonders how many other costly mistakes impact the state financial aid system.  

Students must be both wary of and obsessive about financial aid. Follow all the steps and always reach out for help. To avoid student debt, utilize the resources provided by your home state and by the offices in Hamilton Hall: compare interest rates on loans, get help with your FAFSA and apply for as many grants and scholarships as possible.

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