By Elijah Sullivan
Rogue Community College was unprepared for an unexpected surge in enrollment, leaving many late financial aid applications buried under a mountain of paperwork that may prevent some students from receiving money until January.
“We’ve pulled staff from other departments, and volunteers worked a lot of overtime,” said Anna Manley, head of RCC’s Financial Aid department.
Ironically, RCC is poised to hand out as much as $10 million more in aid to students than last year – $30 million in ’09-‘10 as opposed to the $20 million they handed out in ’08-’09.
What they do not have is the manpower to process the paperwork in time, and the number of students who will be affected is still unclear.
“Last year was a big year,” Manley said. “In the seven-eight years before we never received more than 10,000 applications.”
Manley said final numbers for 2009-2010 may double that.
Enrollment is up at RCC by a stunning 29%, but the number of new full-time equivalent (FTE) students is reportedly “much higher.”
“We are not only serving more students, but returning students who require additional aid,” Manley said.
The Financial Aid department processed as many applications as possible before the checks were cut, but Manley says that if your FAFSA application was not filed by the end of August, you may have a rough term ahead.
“We worked really hard,” Manley said, “[but] students need to work with us.”
“Timing Is Crucial”
President Obama wants America back in school and reintroduced into the workforce as quickly as possible, which has resulted in a stampede of applications across the country. Community colleges have been hit the hardest
Sensitive to the fact that money is scarce in southern Oregon, Manley and her department is using “professional judgment” to streamline the process and accomplish the “bare-bones minimum” necessary for applicants to receive aid.
However, late applicants may not receive their money in time to pay tuition, meaning some students will end up paying up front and being reimbursed later.
If students in danger of late receipt of funding are moderately stable financially, Manley believes they’ll be OK.
“Potentially we could go back and retroactively pay the student for tuition,” Manley said.
Students who have yet to pay tuition face a $75 down-payment, plus substantial installments at four-week intervals. Students who cannot make these payments by the December deadline face being dropped from their classes in progress and any winter classes they have begun signing up for.
“Before the checks were cut, we processed as many applications are we could,” Manley said. She noted that the only people who will be hurt were the “financially unprepared.”
“We understand that there are people everywhere who are unemployed or under-employed,” Manley said. “We are working on ways to use professional judgment to fast-track applications.”
Manley added that the Financial Aid department recognizes under-employment as much as unemployment, and often “zeros out” inadequate sources of income to award students full benefits.
The Pell Grant has also expanded its coverage to include all four terms so that students can begin receiving year-round coverage. In previous years, the Pell grant would hand out up to $4,731 per student, awarded in three installments every term. The fourth term would go uncovered.
Now, Pell awards $5,350 for students who attend three terms per year, with an option to expand to four terms at the same rate. Year-round students would then be eligible for a total of $7,136 per year.
While Manley admits that late applicants may end up “financially disadvantaged”, she added, “Just because you aren’t getting paid now doesn’t mean your check isn’t coming.”
The Financial Aid department has been proactive in alerting students via email if their application arrived late, is incomplete, or otherwise in jeopardy.
“The goal was to make sure students weren’t surprised,” Manley said. “We’re already thinking about winter. We’re going to be proactive about contacting students and informing them of their options.”
But Manley is optimistic that the process will become more efficient in time, helped by the recent partnership with Higher One to go electronic with the reward process. Student debit cards will eliminate the need for snail mail and make sure students receive their funds with greater reliability.
In the future, Manley strongly recommends applying early for financial aid and scholarship money. That means having your FAFSA forms on record at the financial aid office before August – at the very latest.
“Timing is crucial,” Manley said. “It’s about doing your FAFSA paperwork early: January if you are attending fall. And if you want scholarships next year, start applying right now.”
In the meantime, Manley looks on the bright side. She considers the state’s financial aid resources “so successful it’s overwhelming.”