By Vanessa M. Sanchez
Maria Hernandez Ferrier, Texas A&M-San Antonio president, met with Texas A&M-Kingsville’s President Steven H. Tallant Jan. 10 for a special meeting to settle financial aid complications affecting students at this University.
Interviews with administrators revealed complications resulted from a number of factors, including delayed official transcripts from dual enrolled and transfer students, financial aid adjustments after schedule changes, late registration and unpaid bills. Beginning mid-January, the University’s social media pages — a primary source of communication on campus — contained complaints from students, including a Jan. 17 letter to the editor of The Mesquite.
“Many of us have been having issues with financial aid in regards to funding adjustments,” wrote English senior Mercedes Torres. “The office fails to notify students when their funds have been altered, thus leaving them balance left to be paid mere days before a payment deadline.”
Torres said the situation left her in danger of being dropped from classes and not graduating.
University administration responds
“We have heard the challenges, and, like all student-related issues, financial aid and enrollment matters are always a top priority for our University,” Ferrier told a reporter when asked to describe how she responded to vocal complaints from students.
“This University is here to serve so when we learn students are experiencing some difficulties and vocalizing their concerns on Facebook or calling financial aid, it is our intention to address those issues quickly and with the best customer service possible.”
“It is important that we take every possible step to keep students on-track with their degree plans,” she added.
Ferrier said that she and leaders from enrollment management and financial aid met to examine reports from students received through the temporary triage hotline and from Facebook about delayed financial aid refunds.
Though she and other administrators regularly visit the Kingsville campus for a variety of meetings, Ferrier said they decided to hold a separate meeting at the sister campus to find a solution for the affected students.
Distribution dates for consortium checks were the center of Facebook complaints.
“I was told I would receive it back in November, then December, (and) then on January 11th, we were told it wold be dispersed over the next two weeks,” wrote Christina Encina.
Holly Pacheo replied: “I’m still waiting on mine as well. I was told the same as you and have seen nothing … maybe we will get them in the summer. :/”
Consortium agreements explained
As Dr. Mary Ann Grams, vice president for student affairs, explained, consortium agreements are established between two institutions whose students are dual or concurrently enrolled.
The purpose of the agreement, Grams said, is to ensure that all involved with financial aid: the home institution TAMUK/TAMU-SA; the host institution, usually one of the Alamo Colleges; and the student, are following federal guidelines that govern financial aid. Students are asked to sign the paperwork involved with the consortium agreements.
However, once that paperwork is signed, students must follow the stated guidelines. For example, students are required to obtain official transcripts each semester they are co-enrolled or financial aid could be delayed.
Most of the students who dual enroll come from one of the Alamo Colleges, confirmed Francisco Sanchez, assistant vice president for enrollment management.
Grams said that since the Alamo Colleges switched from their previous network to Banner and outsourced the department that distributes official transcripts to the Center for Student Information (CSI) office, students can no longer easily go to their own college for a request.
Therefore, requests are not overseen by a team working at the individual Alamo Colleges. Every Alamo College student requesting information must wait for the CSI to meet their request, which then places a delay in A&M-Kingsville’s system to distribute financial aid.
“There are a lot of implications,” Grams said. There have also been changes within the financial aid regulations. She said sometimes, if a student drops a class in the semester, then their aid amount may change.
She also said that regulations require that the classes students are registering for must be on their degree plan. If the classes taken previously were completed with a passing grade, financial aid will not pay again.
Students urged to register early, meet deadlines
Grams added that the key to a successful aid experience is to register early and apply for financial aid by the priority financial aid deadlines.
Sanchez added, financial aid is not distributed until a student registers. Spring registration began Nov. 1.
The normal financial aid process takes about 3-4 weeks, he said, however, consortium checks may take up to six weeks to process.
Grams said it makes it harder at this University to complete a student’s financial aid process when official transcripts do not come in on time.
At the moment, University administrators are working on a plan to get authorization to the Alamo College, or other institutions, to access transfer students’ official transcripts. This is to hopefully end the current problem of students waiting for their requests to clear and their information to arrive in the mail.
“We do not turn students away,” Ferrier said. If a student requested a transcript and is still waiting for theirs, the University will not penalize them for that. For the moment, they will take unofficial transcripts.
Another part to the problem, Sanchez said, is students may not understand that although they are awarded financial aid, it does not mean they will automatically receive it. An electronic transfer to a student’s bank account is encouraged.
“If you need additional verification, give us a call and let us know,” Ferrier said.
Adding to that complication is adjustments. If a student registers for full-time, one-third, or part-time, and then changes it, they will need a readjustment. This means a student may not receive as much as stated on their Student Aid Report on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) statement.
If variables differ from one year to the next, then students may need to go through verification, meaning they will have to wait about another four weeks to hear back from the financial aid department about any funds. In total, a student may wait 2 ½ months.
Grams added that graduate students may have a harder time with financial aid as calculations are done differently.
Grams said problems happen to everyone and she understands the problem intensifies when it does. “We do apologize,” she said.
Since hearing of students’ issues, administration implemented a triage plan run by Sylvia Medel, assistant director of Enrollment Services. The triage plan arose this semester to identify needed changes and proactively communicate with students.
Sanchez said, if there is any problem, Medel, who has a small team, will dig deeper into the problem and contact the appropriate personell.
President says ‘don’t wait’
To avert this, and other major problems, enroll early, Ferrier said. When students wait for the last minute to register, then financial aid contends with many students at one, which delays the process, she said.
Likely, if a student registers late, their financial aid will not show by the first day of class, Grams said. This is a problem because if tuition is not paid in full by the first day, the student can be dropped.
This increases students’ chances on getting a loan, and as Grams said, “loans aren’t free.”
Sanchez encouraged students to contact the department in question, and if that does not work, call Medel.
Though Facebook has been a large form of communication between students and the University, Grams said it is better to call and best to come in person when there is a problem.
Administration agreed to extend hours and do not leave until 6 p.m. daily, Sanchez said.
“Be patient,” Ferrier said. However, students do not need to wait to see an adviser. They are open year-round, she said.
Grams said advisers sometimes take walk-ins who can answer questions via email and may even text a student. The University’s advising centers are considering creating Facebook pages to communicate with students.
The School of Arts and Sciences advising center launched a Facebook page on Jan. 31 to serve students.
If you need help and cannot get to Main Campus Building, Grams said, there is an advising center in the School of Business of Brooks-City Base Campus in Room E180-194.
Lupe Reyes, undergraduate academic advisor, has an office in that room and said she regularly sees business students for advising.
If a student is unable to visit Main or Brooks campuses, Reyes said they can call her at 210.784.2304 to receive appropriate advising.
Paula Garcia, undergraduate academic advisor, said the core is the same for all degree plans, however, prerequisites are different and students will benefit from visiting their degree-appropriate advisor.
“We wouldn’t want to ill advise someone,” Garcia said.
In the past, Garcia contacted other advisors for information, such as when a student is majoring in business but minoring in a school that is not housed in Brooks Campus.
The idea of cross-training advisors to learn to assist students from all majors was tossed, Garcia said. There was also to be a transfer advisor within the School of Business advising center, but that grew into the recruiting and outreach department.
Sanchez said, the entire process is a cycle: file for financial aid, see an adviser for degree plan, register for classes within that degree plan, pass classes and repeat. To avoid headaches, register for classes and apply for financial aid early, he added.
Jan. 1 was the first day to apply for FASFA but April 1 is the priority deadline for Fall 2012.