The University of Northern Colorado’s Office of Financial Aid stresses out students. The very utterance of “Carter Hall” or “Office of Financial Aid” brings groans from students. Many have terrible tales of their experiences there. Whether it’s long wait times, lack of answers or terrible customer service, it’s a common struggle students deal with.
But, below the common problems a student may face are deeper issues that can alter a student’s academic plan. Lost paperwork, missing signatures and misinformation can influence an individual’s ability to graduate.
Another concern is the lack of representation. With UNC’s population being 61 percent white — according to the university’s website — some students of color don’t feel represented or supported. Even though there are people of color working in the office of financial aid, not many students know about it. Lack of representation can leave students assuming there are no people of color in the office. The concern isn’t students of color getting federal funding compared to white students, but rather whether or not they’ll get the equal amount of support they need compared to white students.
Marchelle Atkins, a junior anthropology major, says they feel like they have to fight hard to find the support they need, so they can stay at UNC. Atkins uses the pronouns “they/them/their.”
“When I go into financial aid as a person of color I know that it’s gonna be a fight. Automatically I know I’m gonna have to argue, I know that I’m gonna end up crying, I know that I’m gonna be angry every time I step into that building,” Atkins said.
With the problems many students experience, not all of them solely fall on the financial aid office. There are many different factors that can influence one’s experience with the Office of Financial Aid and The Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Every student’s experience is different.
So, is the office at fault? Or is there something wrong with the bigger picture? Is UNC administration at fault? Or is it the U.S. Board of Education? In this case, it’s a little bit of everything.
In a perfect world, applying for federal aid would be easy; it wouldn’t be a system that changes every year. FAFSA is a way for students to apply for federal and state funding for colleges across the country. Eligibility for aid is calculated by looking at students’ expected family contribution. The expected family contribution shows how much a family can pay for college. The lower a family’s EFC is, the more aid the student can receive based on income and other information, like taxes the student provides on the FASFA application.
Marty Somero is the director of UNC’s financial aid office. He’s responsible for all types of aid that goes to students including federal, state and private.
“I coordinate chaos,” Somero said.
According to Somero, the application process put very simply starts with student filling out the FASFA application, importing tax information and then sending it to the government. After it’s processed, UNC gets the student’s information, and sends the award letter to the student, who accepts or declines the amount of aid they want. Then the student fulfills any additional needs and gets the bill. If there’s money left over from his/her aid, then the student gets a refund check. Part of being eligible for aid is being a full-time student and maintaining a certain GPA requirement.
But the actual step-by-step process is demonstrated through a complex diagram ironically called The Current Student Financial Aid Delivery System (Simplified View). It’s a diagram filled with lines and boxes detailing how information from FASFA gets sent from the student, to the U.S. Department of Education, to the schools and to different lenders. The table even includes the process for students paying for loans after they graduate.
Andrina Pawlak, coordinator of outreach for the financial aid office, says the process of dealing with FASFA is bigger than just filling out the application.
“I would almost argue that for students that are using financial aid in some capacity, that it starts when they fill out that FASFA for the first time, and it ends when they graduate,” Pawlak said.
One problem with UNC’s Office of Financial Aid is staffing. Somero said the office is understaffed, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Somero wants to hire more people, but it can’t happen due to UNC’s steep budget cuts. With the lack of staff, counselors have to do several jobs at once, and this can hinder relationships with students.
Natasha Ambrose, the associate director of the financial aid office, explains a system that other universities use in their own financial aid offices. This system is called separate processing and service.
“They have dedicated processing counselors, and dedicated service counselors, where the service counselors will do all of the answering of the phones and the one-on-ones. The processing counselors are doing all the processes behind the scenes,” Ambrose said.
This system allows jobs to be slightly more spread out and can allow for more one-on-one time with students. Here at UNC, full-time counselors not only have to do processing, but they also take phone calls, meet with students in person and do outreach. They often find it difficult to find a balance from having hard conversations with students, to just being able to talk and develop relationships. Student workers can’t have one-on-one time with students, because they take a lot of calls.
Briana Compton, a graduate student pursuing sociology, said that Colorado State University had better customer service and organization compared to UNC.
With not having enough staff, it can add stress to the office and can leave students dissatisfied and lost. Atkins experienced difficulties when talking to student workers on the phone.
“Calling is more daunting and can give off a very rude vibe, but when you actually go down there and they can see your face and see how frustrated and how sad and how depressed you actually look in that office, counselors and people like that are more willing to help,” Atkins said.
When Atkins talks to someone on the phone, they feel rushed and get a “why are you calling me?” vibe. But when Atkins is able to get help, they get a good experience from full-time counselors. When student staff members are trained, learning all the information about FASFA is a heavy focus, but they learn about customer service along the way.
“Not everyone is going to be an expert on every loan and on everything that’s financial aid, but they have a sense of team-building in the sense of trying to connect you to the right person,” Atkins said.
But not all students have been lucky. Compton had difficulty getting the help she needed as a grad student.
“When I first got here and needed to visit the financial aid office, for some reason they had an undergrad student help me, which didn’t make sense to me. After these undergrads gave me an unhelpful answer, I was just confused as to why they would have undergrads attempt to handle complicated financial aid arrangements,” Compton said.
Lack of information is also a problem. Information is always evolving. Lack of staff makes it hard to keep up with the constant changes. Somero and other directors go to trainings in order to keep up with national changes to FASFA. It’s difficult to help students understand that FASFA is always changing, and a student’s situation can quickly shift. At times counselors encounter issues they’ve never experienced before.
Felix Munoz is a former UNC student who is now continuing his senior year at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, pursuing degrees in psychology and criminology. He experienced major problems with miscommunication.
“With Carter Hall, it’s a continuous cycle of ‘you should’ve done this’ but when you went at that time they didn’t tell you,” Munoz said.
Munoz is a first generation student, and his experience with FASFA and college has been hard. He figured many things out on his own, but seemed to slip through the cracks, and struggled with financial aid. He tried his best to get the help he needed, but he didn’t know what he didn’t know.
“How do you expect someone who doesn’t know how the school system works, to be on top of stuff they don’t even know exists? So that’s where I think the school failed me,” Munoz said.
This is where most students frustrations come from: miscommunication and lack of information. This is why outreach and education is vital, but everything connects back to lack of staff and funding.
Another main frustration has been bear verification, which is basically an audit from FASFA. Even though this is supposed to be a random audit to make sure students are eligible for aid, some students do it every year.
“Bear verification is a mess. It’s like you have to verify how poor you are, and I’ve gotten hit every year,” Atkins said.
Many students that are selected for verification are of lower economic status. Since last year, the number of verifications went up by nearly 1,000, according to 9News. The U.S. Department of Education is responsible for this extra step, not UNC.
Lack of representation in the financial aid office is also an issue that can make or break relationships with the student body. Due to the political climate, and the main population of UNC, many students of color feel out of place and unrepresented.
Finances is a stressful topic, and it can be difficult to relay those struggles to someone who doesn’t understand. Jordan D. Miller is a financial aid counselor that has had personal struggles with FASFA and knows how vital support is in order for students to thrive in school.
“You need people to understand what it’s like,” Miller said.
Somero is aware of the lack of trust students of color have with the financial aid office, and he encourages students to seek help and from the cultural centers, the directors and such. Somero is also optimistic about the transition to the new Campus Commons, and the one-stop-shop setup of multiple departments.
With the office moving, Somero is hoping they get approved for more staff. If the office has more staffing, it can potentially shift into the separate processing and service model. More one-on-one sessions can happen with students and they can therefore experience better customer service. Another new aspect will be cross-training between the office of financial aid, the bursar and the registrar. This cross-training will allow more people to be knowledgeable in different topics and departments, so students are able to get help from several departments at once in one place.
Many of the issues that the office of financial aid deal with are out of their hands. Processing times are slow, and counselors are at the mercy of the system. The issue of being understaffed, is a result of larger problems that has affected other departments within UNC. According to students, something that could be improved is financial aid’s relationships with students of color on campus, but more students also need to speak up, so improvements can be made.