Financial aid frustrations

There are some benefits to attending Portland State University; financial aid is not one of them.

I can’t count how many PSU students I know who were, are currently, or will be in deep doo-doo because they have one sort of trouble or another with the current financial aid system. A lot of students, particularly last year, did not receive their aid in time. Other students have had trouble with Higher One, the Connecticut based-company that now handles PSU’s financial aid disbursements.

Last year, the policy at the Office of Student Financial Aid was that they could not release money to a student account unless their current registration matched their “enrollment intentions” on the FAFSA. This year, the OSFA has a new disbursement policy aimed not only at increasing the speed with which students receive their aid, ��(a dire need after last year’s debacle that had some students skipping meals because of bureaucratic inertia), but also at closing loopholes that have allowed some students in the past to receive full-time awards even after dropping to half-time status.

Higher One’s high fee structure, lack of deposit-capable ATM’s and paper checks by mail policy has caused other problems for some of the 24,000 students who have a OneCard. Students who don’t want to activate the MasterCard portion of the OneCard are left waiting for paper checks, and that can take a while.

Outsourcing financial aid to save money is one thing, but when it’s done in such a way that students have to literally go without food or drop out of school because they can’t pay their bills, you know something is wrong with the bureaucracy. Nobody has ever explained to me the logic behind requiring FAFSA “enrollment intentions” and PSU registration status to match before financial aid can be released, and while that policy has been reversed, it did significant financial harm to students who relied on financial aid last year.

As of now, it’s hard to get a good handle on just how successful the financial aid program is in disbursing aid to students in a timely fashion. The word on campus is that the situation has improved slightly over last year, but I still hear a lot of frustration in my classrooms on a daily basis. I personally know of 12 students who had to significantly alter their course load or leave PSU entirely over the winter break because of financial aid difficulty.

I have had my joys at Portland State; there are things I like about coming to school here. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I am not, nor have I ever been, a recipient of financial aid (unless you count the PSU Scholars scholarship I got my freshman year). However, when I hear of all the misery and worry that is produced by the perennial question ?” Will I get my financial aid on time? ?” I can’t help but think that something is wrong with our system of disbursing financial aid to the appropriate students in a timely manner. Why is this such a challenge?

It seems to me that PSU’s financial aid troubles stem from its bureaucracy. Far be it for me to point a finger. I have worked in the administration at Portland State, and the people I have come into contact with have been, by and large, intelligent, caring and sensitive individuals.

Portland State, however, is a system that is becoming increasingly similar in size and appearance to a corporation. The fact that the corporation structure is monstrous is belied by the fact that the individual officers of the corporation may, in fact, be your heart of gold next-door neighbors.

Similarly, Portland State, according to my way of thinking, seems to have become a machine for increasing enrollment. Enrollment has risen every year I have attended since 2001, and the institution always seems interested in increasing enrollment figures or retention (or both). Enrollment increases revenue, and revenue is extremely important for a public institution. However, the fact that only 16 percent of PSU’s budget comes from public funds makes me wonder at that designation. Although members of the PSU bureaucracy may individually want to maximize student learning and create systems that will allow for the best outcome for students, sometimes the PSU system seems only to care about increasing enrollment and cutting costs (with, for example, the Higher One contract).

It is quite clear to me that students, especially at an undergraduate level, have a very hard time compartmentalizing their worries. Anxieties over monetary matters can be held separate from attempts at good scholarship. The Office of Financial Aid, and particularly the individuals within that office who care deeply about student learning and outcomes, are probably reminded of this fact every day. If not, they should take a moment to reconsider it.


I have no pat answer for Portland State’s apparently systemic financial aid problems. On the other hand, I know enough to realize that if real improvements are to occur in the process, they will start and end with individuals.