Financial Aid Office gives students a run for their money

Design by Savanah DeBrosse and Emma Deardorff
Design by Savanah DeBrosse and Emma Deardorff
Design by Savanah DeBrosse and Emma Deardorff

Eric Calero went through his freshman year at the University of Miami on what he thought was a full scholarship. He majored in finance and was involved in the Association of Commuter Students and the Federación de Estudiantes Cubanos.

Three days before his sophomore year, Calero checked his CaneLink account and discovered that the financial aid package he was expecting had decreased by $16,100. In the following days, Calero was told he either had to pay the difference by the tuition deadline or transfer.

He now attends Florida International University, where he is enrolled in several classes that are unrelated to his major and will likely graduate a semester late.

Money Problems

Calero’s case is one example of problems students say they’ve faced while dealing with the UM’s financial aid system.

Students have reported untimely notifications, delays in financial aid arrival, miscommunication with the office and last-minute adjustments to aid packages.

Though Calero turned in his documents on time, Joanne Brown, the director of financial aid for UM’s Office of Financial Assistance (OFAS), said nearly 700 students failed to meet the April 15 deadline this year, causing a “bottleneck” in processing the documents. 

“We had a much higher volume this year than in past years,” Brown said.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opened on Jan. 1, 2016. By April 15, students applying for aid needed to submit all required documents to OFAS; these include W-2 forms, tax returns, the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile and the FAFSA, as well as any additional requested forms. Aug. 1 was the first deadline to pay tuition, and if students did not pay tuition by Sept. 8, they were at risk of their class schedule being cancelled.

Brown said the staff was working overtime to field requests in what she called “peak processing mode.” Half of the staff focused on routine work, while the other half worked on troubleshooting urgent cases, such as students facing possible enrollment cancellation. The volume of requests flooded phone lines, causing long wait times for some students.

Former UM student Eric Calero transfered to FIU after a significant amount of his financial aid was taken away because of a misunderstanding with the UM Office of Financial Aid . Evelyn Choi // Staff Photographer
Former UM student Eric Calero transfered to FIU after a significant amount of his financial aid was taken away because of a misunderstanding with the UM Office of Financial Aid . Evelyn Choi // Staff Photographer

Even when students did turn in required documents on time, they still had trouble receiving their financial aid.

Sophomore Sarah Schoening found that her President’s Scholarship was missing from her list of financial awards on CaneLink prior to the Aug. 1 tuition deadline.

“I talked to a bunch of people, and they were all saying, ‘Oh, this is the wrong person. You have to call this person,’” Schoening said. “They were bouncing everyone around, and they were saying that tons of people were having this problem and that it was going to be fixed.”

The last-minute nature of these problems led to added pressure, further worsening student concerns.

“It was only five or six days until the due date for tuition,” Schoening said. “I was getting worried that it wasn’t going to be fixed.”

Schoening’s case was resolved just in time for the fall semester. However, miscommunication is not the sole source of the problems.

Missing Documents

Another student, Nick, who preferred not to use his real name, worked with Brown to fill out his CSS Profile and submit his documents before the April deadline. Nick said Brown confirmed with him over the phone that the forms had been turned in and he would receive aid in the fall.

In May, Nick received a notification saying that he needed to turn in several tax documents. The office claimed his file was missing some of the forms he had already submitted in February. He refiled those forms.

The week before classes started, Nick’s “To-Do List” on CaneLink indicated he was also missing a non-custodial parent form, which he said he also gave to Brown in February. In order to fill out the non-custodial parent form, Nick needed a written statement from someone close to his family confirming that his parent was not present to fill out tax returns.

“I used my high school principal because I went to a small school and he knew my family,” Nick said.

After Nick called the office again to ask about the form, the issue was quickly resolved. The original document had been there the whole time, timestamped in February. When he pressed a staff member on why this form was missing, he said she told him that the “scanning department” misplaced it.

During The Miami Hurricane’s reporting for this story, other OFAS staff members also mentioned the “scanning department,” referring to the Document Management System that scans documents for more than 100 departments at the university.

“We have to have people sift through thousands and thousands of documents, and that includes Admissions, Financial Aid, the Registrar. So, it’s a central repository for the entire university,” said Raymond Nault-Hix, director of OFAS. 

The financial aid office will not review an application until a student’s file has been marked “Complete for Review” on CaneLink. If Nick had not persistently followed up with OFAS, he may not have received his financial aid package.

“At no point did they say, ‘We’re sorry,’” he said. “It’s incredibly stressful, especially when you’re a 100-percent financial aid person and they f*** up all your stuff.”

It wasn’t until the last week of August that Nick received the aid.

Lack of Alerts

Although students are notified of to-do list items and changes to their financial awards via email, student complain that these notifications are not always timely.

Junior Allen Liu receives both a full-tuition Singer Scholarship and tuition remission because his father is a university employee. Liu said he received his financial aid package on time and paid off his remaining room and board fees in July; however, Liu said he got an email on Aug. 24 notifying him that he was at risk of having his classes cancelled due to a remaining balance on his account.

Upon checking CaneLink, Liu discovered that on Aug. 12, his account had been charged $800. This charge represented the excess aid included in Liu’s original aid package in July.

Liu’s case indicated an issue with the notification system, but he was able to resolve this issue quickly due to the relatively small additional payment of $800. 

For other students, untimely adjustments to financial aid had larger repercussions.

Calero said his problems began on June 17, when he received his financial aid package for the 2016-2017 school year. His awards listed $41,700 in aid, which included $7,500 in loans. This was a 23 percent decrease from the $53,670 in aid he received his freshman year, an amount that did not include any loans.

The unexpected drop in aid forced Calero to reconsider whether he could afford to return to UM in the fall.

“This semester, I was supposed to be an RA in Hecht,” Calero said. “I had to tell my Hecht advisors that I didn’t know if I would be going to UM or not.”

When he realized the drastic change in aid, Calero went to OFAS and spoke with advisor Nichole Antilla. He said she told him he was awarded $13,000 in “accidental aid” his freshman year because the office thought he was living on campus when he was actually commuter student.

“I think they were being completely dishonest with what they were taking away,” Calero said. “You don’t just take away 13K and say, ‘Oh I thought you were living on campus.’”

The other $7,000 of the deduction was because of a financial adjustment after his brother got married and moved out of their family home.

“So for the next month, I was trying to talk to basically anybody I could,” Calero said.

He submitted records of the nearly $10,000 in medical expenses for his mother’s illness. He spoke to Brown, who helped get him an additional $4,000, but it was still insufficient.

After several revisions and meetings with advisors, Calero said he was glad to resolve the problem on Aug. 18 with $49,000 in aid and a $6,500 loan he accepted that same night. 

Calero awoke the next day to see that his financial aid package had decreased to $32,900. It was Aug. 19,  just days before the beginning of the semester.

He said what ensued was a chaotic week of calling OFAS in hopes of figuring out a way he could continue attending UM. The response he got, however, was not what he expected. Calero said the office accused him of being dishonest about his resident status.

“Advisors were very rude with me, telling me that I should stop calling the office,” Calero said. “You guys have done me dirty here and I can complain as much as I want.”

In the end, Calero was told if he could not find a way to pay tuition, he should consider transferring to another institution. As a last effort, he sent an email to advisor Nault-Hix saying he was being “hung out to dry” instead of being helped.

“I was hoping to work with you all to find a solution so I would not have to be left to transfer to a different school on short notice,” he wrote. “But I guess there is nothing more you want to do on your end.”

He received no response. Just before the semester started, Calero withdrew from UM.

“They kind of made it seem like I was an isolated case,” Calero said. “They made it seem like I was the only one who got excessive aid.”

“Accidental Aid”

Sophomore Ralph Paz also had “accidental aid” taken away due to confusion about his resident status. As a result, he is taking extra classes each semester to graduate a year early.

Ralph Paz waits in the Office of Financial Aid. Paz is working towards graduating early to compensate for his lack of financial aid. Shreya Chidarala // Staff Photographer
Sophomore Ralph Paz waits in the Office of Financial Aid. Paz is working toward graduating early to compensate for his lack of financial aid. Shreya Chidarala // Staff Photographer

Paz was awarded about $44,000 his freshman year. At the start of this academic year, that went down to about $33,000.

Paz met with Antilla,  who said a portion of the deduction occurred because Congress discontinued the federal Perkins Loan at the end of last academic year. The remainder was the result of excessive aid.

“She said, ‘The reason you don’t have these this time around was because last year, we didn’t make a distinction between commuter students and residents,’” Paz said.

This meant he received money to pay for room and board on campus, even though he indicated on official documents he was a commuter student. It should be relatively simple to know if a student is living on campus or not, Paz said, and it is a problem if OFAS cannot differentiate between these students.

“There seems to be a lot of disorganization in the financial aid office,” he said.

Paz emphasized his issue with financial aid was not because he was missing documents or turned them in after the April 15 deadline. In fact, he said he makes it a point to submit his forms in a timely fashion and in person at the front counter of the office. He prefers to give advisors a hard copy of his file so it is “hard to miss.”

“If I turn it in by email, I know it will either take way too long, it’ll get lost, they’re not going to look at it, they’re going to forget to open it,” Paz said.

Documents submitted to OFAS make just one stop before reaching the office, according to John Haller, vice president of Enrollment Management. Once forms are submitted, they go to Document Management, where they are scanned and indexed. The scanning department then emails the documentation to OFAS.

“That’s the beauty of technology today. It’s a paperless area,” Haller said. “There’s a number of individuals who will be working to scan and index the documents, but it’s one person then it goes right to an advisor electronically.”

Despite students’ reports of receiving “accidental aid,” Haller said the office does not use the term “accidental aid.” He said changes in a student’s FAFSA, CSS Profile, supplemental financial documentation, residency status or position as a full- or part-time student could affect perceived financial need, which in turn would alter the awarded aid.

Whether or not students received tuition deadline extensions depended on when documents were delivered to OFAS, according to Haller.

If students turned in documents on time but still had extenuating circumstances, “it may take some time to resolve. As long as the receipt of those documents come in a timely manner and there’s time to adjust it, then we would keep to the deadline,” he said.

Documents turned in after the deadline with extenuating circumstances, however, became “tricky.”

“The later the information comes in makes it even more difficult. That’s why adhering to the financial aid deadline is really important,” Haller said.

President’s Priorities

At his inauguration in January, President Julio Frenk announced that one of his Roadmap Initiatives was to provide “Access to Excellence” by meeting 100 percent of demonstrated financial need for students through both merit-based and need-based scholarships.

For the 2016-2017 school year, 7073 students applied for financial aid, and 95 percent of those students received aid.

At a roundtable discussion with student leaders and Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Whitely, Frenk said meeting the highest possible percentage of student need is a university-wide focus.

“Student financial aid is our number one priority,” he said.

Jennifer Rau is assistant to vice president for Student Affairs and a university ombudsperson. Her role as ombudsperson means if a student has an issue with a university department, she will liaise between the two parties and advise the best way to handle the matter.

“It’s a remarkable goal. It really is,” Rau said. “The only other institutions that try to achieve this are Ivy League Schools,” she said.

Rau said at the beginning of September that she had not heard any complaints from students about delayed financial aid.

Whitely said she had “heard rumblings” about students’ issues with financial aid disbursement and wants to know more about problems so she can offer solutions.

“If there are specifics, please let us know so we can follow up,” she said. “If there are administrative concerns that we need to fix, then we need to get on top of that.”

Whitely later redirected Hurricane reporters to Haller for comment.

Haller emphasized that students are the priority.

“At the end of the day, the goal is to see them receive a college degree, and if for whatever reason they can’t do it at the University of Miami, then at least we want to afford them the opportunity to do it in an institution,” Haller said.

The Road Ahead

While administrative issues can cause problems with financial aid, students must do their part to avoid potential complications.

College Financial Aid Advisors Founder Jodi Okun stressed the importance of “financial literacy” and students taking responsibility for the status of their aid. Checking the student portal on a daily basis, following deadlines and immediately addressing issues are all crucial parts of the process.

“If things don’t look right, don’t let it just fly,” she said. “Be your own advocate.”

For the first time, the FAFSA will be available three months earlier than usual, on Oct. 1, and incoming freshmen will submit financial aid applications just once, rather than going through the resubmission process that has been routine for the past few years.

Brown said the office was “very excited” about this change, as it would give OFAS more time to process documents.

“I’m confident that we can do the work with enough time,” Brown said.

OFAS may move up deadlines for student documents next year. Yet for some students, including Calero, the damage is done.

As an incoming freshman, Calero expressed excitement for his future at UM in an interview with The Miami Hurricane.

“I really feel myself getting into the UM community,” Calero said. “I feel myself going through with ease … I feel like the next four years are going to be fun.”