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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

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Financial aid causes concerns


UH will continue correcting problems with financial aid disbursement, administrators said Wednesday at the Student Government Association Town Hall Meeting.

Officials said lack of communication, slow employee response to student inquiries and long processing times have led to financial aid problems for some students this semester.

SGA President David Rosen said that the meeting had been called at the insistence of the Office of Academic Affairs earlier this month.

"There are a number of problems that are on this campus that we have to solve," Vice President of Academic Affairs Donald Foss said.

Students had complained that the University had not properly communicated financial aid deadlines for accepting awards and verifying paperwork.

Dennis Fouty, associate vice president of Information Technology, said more financial aid employees are needed to alleviate the backlog.

"We also recognize we need more resources in some of those areas, so even though we got dedicated individuals, like financial aid counselors at the Welcome Center, we know we need more," he said.

Since August, the Welcome Center’s call center has almost tripled its staff, Brooke Dunn, director of Welcome Center Enrollment Services, said.

"We’ve added 20 new people at the call center so that they could answer (students’) calls and be responsive so that you’re not waiting on hold for an hour (or) 45 minutes," Fouty said.

At its longest, the average wait time on the phone was 45 minutes in August and has since gone down to two minutes after more personnel were hired, Bursar Gene Gillis said.

"We had over 7,000 phone calls, and I had eight people to answer them," Gillis said. "The next day we hired five more people to just answer the phones."

Although the meeting focused on students’ financial aid problems, Sal Loria, Interim Director of Scholarships and Financial Aid, said that most students have received their awards and that the office is working to get more students processed daily.

"To this date, we have disbursed over $74 million," he said. "We do have more students that need to be processed and more aid to come in, surely, and we’re aware of that."

At the end of August, $16 million in loans still needed to be disbursed, and Loria did not offer a figure at the meeting.

Administrators and SGA members said that they will begin forming student and parent focus groups within the next three months to target financial aid problems.

Student concerns

Students, such as political science post-baccalaureate Jermika Bradberry, told administrators about problems they were experiencing.

Bradberry said she returned to UH from Lamar University where she had a job and financial aid waiting for her only to encounter obstacles in her funding at UH.

"I was employed and had tuition reimbursement (at Lamar). It’s just I liked being a student here so much that I decided to come back, but now it’s just trash," she said.

Bradberry said the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid informed her that she would receive her awards after four to six weeks. After six weeks, she said, the office said she would have to appeal her case and wait at least another eight weeks for results.

"It was such a surprise because I used to brag on UH’s financial aid department whenever people would say they got screwed over at (other universities)," she said. "If I had known all of this, I wouldn’t have come in the first place."

Technology junior Beverly Doyle said she blames the financial aid problems on PeopleSoft 8.9.

"The PeopleSoft system won’t update, so it shows that I’m failing courses and that I have a bad (grade-point average)," Doyle said. "I can’t even begin to start the financial aid process until they update the system."

Biology sophomore Donte Hicks said he had an issue with financial aid paperwork.

"Initially in April, I sent in my stuff, and I was missing some stuff. I sent it in May and then in June and July, and they told me two weeks ago they never received anything," he said. "Basically, they’re saying I’m back at square one."

In conjunction with the meeting, financial aid employees were also available on site to help individual students with account discrepancies.

After students spoke directly to administrators about their problems, biology freshman Seemab Jamil said after the meeting she wasn’t worried.

"Sal Loria said he would look into it. They were very cooperative. I’m really glad everything worked out," Jamil said. "We’re communicating. I’m pretty confident everything will work out to be OK."

While some students said that implementing PeopleSoft mid-semester would have helped them acclimate to the change, Craig Ness, executive director for Academic Budgets and Administration, said that other universities that had attempted a later implementation had more problems. These problems led to delaying the spring semester courses and financial aid, forcing those universities to open later than expected.

Rosen said the forum provided a valuable dialogue between students and administrators.

"I’m very confident that we ruffled a few feathers," he said. "For (the administration), it might have been a shock, but it’s stuff we’ve been hearing for months. Hopefully, things will get better."

Improving communication

On Sept. 5, SGA passed legislation to establish a committee that would work with students, staff and faculty to help advise the Office of Scholarship and Financial Aid with evaluating policies and procedures. If approved by the University, the committee is expected to notify students of any policy changes.

"Our proposal to have a financial aid committee really resonated tonight, and I think that will be beneficial in helping alleviate some of the problems," Sam Dike, SGA vice president, said. "We’ll be able to have a comprehensive outlook on what to improve on because all the players are going to be involved: students, faculty and staff."

Rosen said the committee bill needs final approval from administration before going into effect.

"I haven’t heard anybody disagree with the idea," Rosen said. "If students have problems with an issue, why not get students involved to solve them?"

Additional reporting by Michael Damante


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