Students still struggling with financial aid

Faced with a small staff and thousands of students needing financial aid, Portland State’s Office of Financial Aid is struggling once again to keep the disbursement process flowing smoothly, but things are improving from previous years, officials say.

The Office of Financial Aid currently has just 15 employees, including three consultants from Georgia, that are serving a university that has as many as 18,000 students on aid, and the number applying for financial aid has been growing.

The financial aid office has been answering about 200 to 300 calls a day, according to Gary Garafolo, one of the three consultants from Financial Aid Services, an Atlanta, Ga. consulting firm assisting PSU with its financial aid processing. Garafolo is currently serving as director of financial aid.

Kathy Goff, senior assistant director of financial aid, said that there’s a point where you can’t physically keep up anymore with the combination of a lack of staff and the number of students combined with higher tuition rates. Up until two years ago, Goff said, financial aid had been timely dispersed.

“We still haven’t recovered from last year,” she said.

In early 2003, a number of financial aid staff left and when new staff were hired a few months later, there wasn’t enough time for effective training. The policies and procedures take several months to learn, Goff said.

The long lines of students in Neuberger Hall, waiting to receive their disbursements, are just one indication of the office’s struggle to get badly needed financial aid to students on time.

“I’ve been here since Monday, and I’ve been coming in every day,” said Sam Snow, a Portland State senior. Snow was told his financial aid was lost in the system. He received all of his grants but not his Stafford loans and has had to borrow money from friends for books and bills.

“I’m overwhelmed,” said Don Baxter, a graduate student who said he has been coming to the financial aid office every third day for three weeks. He mailed his signed promissory note and was given the wrong address to send it to.

Baxter said he was told from a financial aid cashier that they didn’t know where it went so he had to redo it. Although everyone in the financial aid office has been very nice and helpful, Baxter says he can’t help but feel frustrated.

Cathy Dyck, interim vice president of finance and administration, says that compared to last year the financial aid situation has improved significantly.

Last year many students didn’t receive their financial aid until the end of the term, forcing some students to borrow money from friends and family until the money came in. Dyck said that what happened last year will not happen again this year.

The Financial Aid office’s biggest concern right now is getting all financial aid requests processed, and they’ve been looking at what needs to change in how the office is operated to improve it, Dyck said.

One step taken in the last two months has been the Financial Aid Department’s move from operating under Admissions and Records to the Finance and Administration Office. Now the director of financial aid can report directly to Dyck and the financial aid cashiers can access accounts receivable on their computers, allowing them access to more information on a student’s financial aid account.

There are also the three consultants from Financial Aid Services. As former financial aid administrators, they specialize in resolving financial aid issues like the one PSU is going through. They are processing financial aid applications and next week a consultant will be coming in to conduct a review of the Financial Aid Office to determine what it does well and what can be improved.

Another problem Financial Aid is addressing is optimizing performance with Banner, a delivery and computing system that the Financial Aid office has been using for five years.

Dyck says that PSU has asked Banner consultants to review the Financial Aid office’s usage of Banner and how they can streamline the process, decreasing manual procedures that slow down financial aid dispersal time. Dyck gave an example of one of the problems they are currently having with Banner. A Pell Grant award of $3,000 divides itself into $1,001 for Fall, $999 for Winter and $1,000 for Spring rather then $1,000 each term.

All financial aid files that were turned in before Aug. 31 have been processed, Dyck said. The delivery of money for students is affected by circumstances like whether the student’s enrollment has changed, if they told financial aid from which bank they wanted their financial aid, and whether they have accepted their award.

An e-mail update that Dyck received from the Financial Aid Office states that the first week of the term over 1,300 checks were disbursed on Monday and $14,861,819.74 was disbursed in financial aid as of 5 p.m. that Tuesday

In response to student’s complaints about missing documentation Dyck said it’s never not been a problem.

Garafolo said that losing a document would be a rarity in the financial aid office.

But in a place that collects and receives 1,000 documents a day it has been known to happen.

“It’s been better. Yes, there have been lines, they’ve been seen, money has been disbursed,” Garofolo said of the financial aid process.

The process, he said, isn’t rocket science.