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Thursday, November 15, 2018

Letter from the Editor

Letter from the Editor: Raising the right questions


I’m writing this while on hold with financial aid. It’s only minute nine, though, so I’m still considering myself one of the lucky ones.

Oh! Okay, I just got somebody on the phone.

“Yeah, my name is Cara, and I’m working on a story about UH financial aid. I’m just trying to get a better understanding of the process.”

“You should probably speak to a financial aid representative. Here, I’ll transfer you.”

… Then who were you? Regardless, after seven minutes of fuzzy piano music, I was able to talk to a ‘customer-service-representative-for-the-scholarships-and-grants-department’ who preferred to not give me her name.

I asked questions. Some were softballs, like “I’m trying to understand your process so I can share it with students, are enrollment issues students have dealt more of an issue with federal grants?” By “issues,” of course, I mean students getting dropped from their courses after failing to pay tuition on-time, even though they depend on federal or state aid that hasn’t arrived yet.

Other questions — and admittedly fewer — were tougher to navigate.

I asked her if there was any situation, any at all where a student with pending aid would get dropped from classes because their money came in late. No, she said, in theory.

She said she always encouraged students that received aid to file for “emergency deferment,” which would extend their payment deadline if a worst-case scenario were to happen. And I believed her.

She was a little nervous, but she seemed to have an answer for everything that made crystal clear sense to me. But that doesn’t change the fact that so few students, myself included, have yet to enjoy the seamless enrollment process she described.

Whatever the infrastructure is that encompasses enrollment, financial aid and advising, it never seems to have a problem proving itself as fundamentally flawed on some level. I’m not pretending to know which level the blame should fall on (you’ll see I did my due diligence of asking the source directly), but there are some serious issues students are faced with at the beginning of each semester. Maybe they’re just not telling them to the right person — after all, venting to your friends won’t generate the same kind of feedback that, say, an open letter to anybody involved in the enrollment process might have.

Shockingly, most students aren’t well-versed in the jargon of the financial services office. The majority of issues I’ve heard second-hand are rooted in a lack of communication between the student and the financial office. And honestly, most of the aid representatives have an answer for everything you’d ask them. There’s a clear protocol for almost any hypothetical situation presented to them.

But what looks great on paper is rarely as crisp in reality. The minutia, like the difference between a tax return and a tax return transcript, is rarely explained to students. Most students don’t know the difference between a work W-2 and a student W-2.

These formalities seem insignificant, but failing to navigate their waters can wind up holding students back from enrolling on time, graduating on time or even staying at UH long enough to graduate. And I’ll stop saying that the office has a communication problem when I hear somebody say they understood everything that financial services needed from day one.

These accusations are broad, I know, but they’re all founded in a theme that recurs in every financial services horror story I’ve heard.

It’s no secret that UH’s population is booming. We’re currently enjoying the University’s highest enrollment numbers in history. But what’s the point in welcoming this eager, bushy-tailed influx of Cougars if we don’t have the infrastructure to support them?

Enrollment and payment is usually the first thing a student deals with at UH — before their first football game, meal at McAlister’s Deli or workout at the Recreation and Wellness Center. If we’re subjecting new students to one of UH’s weakest links before they’ve formed any good memories here, how can we expect those students not to come in sour?

Or, maybe these issues have arisen because of the influx. Maybe we’re understaffed, scrambling to handle enrollment numbers we simply aren’t equipped to handle.

Is that an understandable reason for today’s problems? In a sense, sure, though it would’ve been prudent to bolster our financial services staff as soon as we saw enrollment numbers trending upward.

I’m just drawing from personal experience here — not to mention the experiences of friends, acquaintances and conversations I hear in passing — so take these anecdotes for what they’re worth. Which is a lot, at least according to me and my friends, acquaintances and the conversations I hear in passing.

And I’m not raising new questions here. I’m just asking them to a larger audience than most students ever do.

-Cara Smith, editor in chief

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